Captain Phillips, the new, inspired by real events, film written by Billy Ray, directed by Paul Greengrass, and starring Tom Hanks, is a big-budget, studio type blockbuster (though technically an indie, but tomayto, tomahto) version of the Danish film A Hijacking. And god damn it if the sons of bitches don’t get away with it.
I’m not prepared to say that Captain Phillips is the better film of the two. I’m also not prepared to say it’s not. But it’s a fine film in its own right and one that will grip you by the gonads (or whatever you have that you don’t find comfortable having gripped) and will not let go. The basic plot concerns Hanks, as the title character (natch, I mean, it is Tom Hanks, so c’mon, you know), at the helm of an American cargo ship when they are taken over by Somali pirates and then what happens when the Navy SEALS are called in to resolve the situation. And resolve it they do; hell hath no fury like an America scorned.
Everyone contributes more than their fare share to the gritty, down to earth, yet still over the top, effectiveness of the film. This is perhaps Hanks finest performance in quite some time (possibly because it’s his most interesting character in quite some time). His Captain Phillips is an excellent leader that defines grace under pressure. But he’s also rigid, a stickler and a bit of a prick (well, according to the crew members who are suing the owner of the cargo ship, he was much more than a bit of one). Though people have complained of his faux Boston accent, in the end, it doesn’t get in the way of his losing himself in this character and completely disappearing at times (or is it that Phillips loses himself in Hanks; again, tomayto, tomahto). And those harrowing final scenes of Hanks trying to hold himself together as a medical practitioner calmly, very calmly, very, very calmly tries to help him are quite haunting (improvised on the spot with Corpsman Danielle Albert).
The screenplay by Ray does start out a bit wibbly-wobbly with some dull, flat and on the nose conversation between Phillips and his wife (played by Catherine Keener for some unknown reason; I know the economy is rough, but there wasn’t any lesser known actor who couldn’t have spared a day or two for the shoot?) on the way to the airport. But once Phillips boards the ship, the dialog is tight, to the point, with a strong feeling of verisimilitude. Ray does an equally amazing job of creating very real, three dimensional characters in the Somali pirates, not just making them the enemy de jour, but trying to understand why they do the things they do without making them innocent.
Greenglass, however, is the perfect director for a film like this. His trademarked hand held camera that shakes and his constant, jagged cutting give the whole procedure the feeling of a documentary. And he never allows the forward momentum to stop. Whether his camera sores through the heavens or focuses in close up on the characters, everything keeps going someplace. The whole things feels as if the editor is on meth, or at the least has ADD (BTW, that’s a compliment).
Special note, though, must be taken of Barkhad Abdi, who plays Muse, the “look at me, look at me, I’m the captain now” head of the pirates. He’s not a professional; he was discovered driving a limo in Minneapolis, though he spent his first seven years in Somali. But every once in awhile a movie finds a non-professional who, by being a non-professional, can bring something to a role no actor can. This happened with Harold Russell for The Best Years of Our Lives and Hang S. Ngor for The Killing Fields. Abdi gives a powerful realization of his character and his scenes with Hanks are riveting.
There is one aspect of the film that I must say I found myself becoming quite unnerved by. Though the movie is filled with human beings, everything is so controlled by machines and computers. Everything. The helm of the cargo ship is filled with the latest, up to date IT toys; and so, it almost seems, is the Somali ship. Both play a cat and mouse game using computers and radar alone for awhile. And then at the end, the SEALS arrive, with the calm determination, the lack of emotion, the steely focus of the Roman soldiers in Spartacus. In many ways, they seem half human, half machine, like a troop of Robocops. At this point, the drama takes a rather curious emotional turn as Phillips and Muse’s humanity is squashed by technology. Is this really the only way we can resolve our differences? Maybe so, but I was still left feeling somewhat uncomfortable at this brave new world that hath such creatures in it.
What is there to say about Machete Kills? Well, I realize that it is very difficult to make a good movie that is suppose to be a bad one, but still, this is the best director Robert Rodriguez and writer Kyle Ward can do? It certainly starts out well enough with a fun preview of the next Machete movie, Michete Kills…in Space (kill me now, Machete, kill me now) and the preposterous opening scenes achieve the tone that Rodriguez is going for. But from the moment Carlos Estevez (it’s hard to tell from the filming whether he’s out of house arrest yet) as the POTUS without the mostus shows up, it’s all downhill from there. The whole thing is both too clever, yet not clever enough. And the casual and cavalier killing of people as a joke is almost never funny, just dispiriting. Only Demian Bicher (as a Mexican revolutionary with a multiple personality disorder), Sofia Vergara (as a madam with mammaries that can kill), and William Sadler (as a quite funny parody of Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night) get away with the ridiculousness. Mel Gibson shows up, but he’s no Auric Goldfinger; even worse, he’s no Doctor Evil. In the end, it’s a movie that doesn’t seem to have a reason for having been made. With Danny Trejo as Machete.