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Tom Hanks excellent in taut ‘Captain Phillips’

  • (Sony Pictures)

It wasn’t that long ago and we remember how it turned out. So there’s no way that “Captain Phillips,” the movie about the 2009 pirate attack on the M.V. Maersk Alabama, should be as surprising and entertaining a sea tale as it is.

What happened was more heroic than you’d expect. The resistance of the crew, the resilience and craftiness of the pirates and the guile, level-headedness and bravery of the title character are so Hollywood that you half expect Bruce Willis heroics and an exchange of pithy trash-talk catch-phrases.

But this thrilling retelling was directed by Paul (“United 93”) Greengrass, an unfussy director with a talent for tension. And it was adapted from the real Capt. Richard Phillips’ book by Billy (“Breach”/ “Shattered Glass”) Ray.

Movie trailer: Captain Phillips

They’ve cooked up an engrossing, sober-minded, fact-centered account, telling the story from parallel points of view of the two hard-case captains here. There’s Phillips, a veteran no-nonsense sailor, and a Somali pirate named Muse. Phillips has his job, his pushy bosses, his ways of dealing with an attack “by the book.” But so does Muse, a smart thug who has to answer to a murderous warlord if he doesn’t seize a ship and ransom it and its crew.

“No al-Qaida here,” Muse grins, pointing his battered AK-47 at Phillips. “Just business.”

Tom Hanks has built his career on mastering the details that signal “competence” in any character, and he disappears into Capt. Phillips. Even in the informality of a cargo ship hauling relief supplies up and down the African coast, his captain is all business, demanding professionalism from the crew he’s just met.

Barkhad Abdi is Muse, a gaunt figure with expressive eyes who lets us see the wheels turning, just as Hanks does. Their performances never let us forget, as entertaining as their cat-and-mouse game becomes, that these men knew life and death were the stakes.

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