With most eyes looking for reviews of films premiering out of the Toronto International Film Festival over the next week, it was a surprise to some when reviews hit the Web on Friday morning of the upcoming action-drama "Captain Phillips," starring Tom Hanks and directed by Paul Greengrass.
The film doesn't premiere until Sept. 27, when it opens the New York Film Festival, and hits the multiplexes on Oct. 11. The early screenings and reviews could be an attempt to briefly steal some of the Toronto films' limelight.
Bringing together two-time Oscar winner Hanks with Greengrass, maker of dizzyingly smart films that walk the line between sharp political engagement and kinetic action, "Captain Phillips" is a true-life tale of the American shipping captain swept up in a hostage ordeal when Somali pirates invaded his ship on the high seas in 2009.
It has long been unclear as to whether the film would have the emotional weight and gravitas to make it a year-end awards contender or if it would be more of a straight-up commercial thriller. These early reviews, mostly positive, though with a few notable sticking points, seem to say the film is looking to be both.
... a pulsating account of the kidnapping of the captain of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates. Something of a companion piece for director Paul Greengrass to his superb "United 93," which was based on the real-life takeover of one of the 9/11 aircraft, this immaculately made reconstruction of a chaotic incident will have a much better time of it commercially than the earlier film due to the presence of star Tom Hanks and because it has a happy ending.
The result is a kinetic docudrama that always impresses without ever connecting emotionally in quite the same way as the helmer’s prior “Bloody Sunday” and “United 93,” with which “Phillips” forms a loose trilogy of average Joes and Janes caught in the throes of politically motivated violence ... this impeccably well-made, gripping but grim survival tale should spark a flurry of awards buzz for star Tom Hanks and powerful Somali newcomer Barkhad Abdi, but may prove too grueling to make major waves with Academy voters or the multiplex crowd.
... while Phillips comes off as resourceful, brave and dedicated, his captors more often than not resemble zombies — Greengrass often shoots them in a way that makes their eyes invisible, rendering them soulless. The group’s leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi) gets in a few lines about how his people are victimized by larger nations ... but he mostly comes off as a mere monster, constantly chewing khat leaves and glowering.
Greengrass is obviously no colonist — his “Bloody Sunday” was an impassioned tale of Northern Ireland bearing the brunt of British violence — but his portrayal here of a noble white officer suffering at the hands of insidious black pirates smacks of Rudyard Kipling.
With the exception of his two first-rate entries in the "Bourne Identity" franchise, Greengrass tends to infuse his movies with a political energy on par with their breathless pace. "Captain Phillips" holds similar DNA to "United 93" in that it focuses as much on the internal debate among the kidnappers as it does the victims, while moving along so swiftly that its interpretive aspects can only be viewed in hindsight.
Writing at Hitfix, Kristopher Tapley declared the movie "plainly one of the best films of the year" while noting that producer Scott Rudin and Sony deployed a similar early review strategy ahead of the NYFF premiere of "The Social Network" three years ago.
Whether "Captain Phillips" can ride out the rough seas of Oscar season remains to be seen. It will probably first have to connect with audiences at the box office.
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