There are two top-rank performances in Captain Phillips, the new Paul Greengrass movie. One is by Tom Hanks, and it’s a striking reminder of what a meticulous and affecting actor this most likable of Hollywood stars still is. The other, by Barkhad Abdi, is a wonderful surprise. Abdi, born in Somalia and raised in Minnesota, has never acted before. When he and three friends heard about an open casting call for the movie in Minneapolis (a city with a large Somali community), they turned out to audition for the parts of Somalian pirates; to their own amazement, they got hired. Now, we see that Abdi is a natural – a performer with an undeniable gift who holds his own in every one of his many scenes with Hanks. The sense of discovery in watching him is one of the most pleasurable aspects of the movie.
Greengrass, a man committed to documentary tone (as was evident in his great 9/11 film United 93, and in his two Bourne pictures), naturally went to sea to make this seafaring movie. He shot most of it on the rolling Mediterranean swells around Malta (his signature hand-held camerawork sways with the waves), and the sequences of waterborne action and feats of navigational composition, which must have been exhaustingly difficult to achieve, are marvels of location filmmaking.
The movie is based on the well-known true story of Captain Richard Phillips (played by Hanks), whose abduction by pirates in 2009 ignited a sensational high-seas standoff between his captors and the U.S. Navy. Greengrass gives us a few introductory scenes set in Vermont to establish Phillips as an unexceptional family man (Catherine Keener cameos as his wife) who’s uneasy about his latest job – he’s on his way to Oman to ferry a load of cargo to Kenya on an American-run vessel called the Maersk Alabama. The trip will take him down along the coast of Somalia, which is what worries him: it’s an area infested with a new breed of pirates, whose successful demands for multimillion-dollar ransoms have become a costly annoyance for international shipping concerns. (Phillips’ decision to pass closer to shore than recommended outraged several members of his 20-man crew, who subsequently filed a lawsuit against the Maersk’s operators.)
The pirates are a scourge, but the movie’s script, by Billy Ray (whose most recent feature credit is The Hunger Games), illuminates the miserable circumstances that have turned them into marauders. In the Somalian fishing town of Eyl, we see a tribal elder directing the selection of amateur pirates. Many are just teenagers. Their country has been brutalized by an unending civil war, and foreign trawlers have illegally vacuumed up the fish from their coastal waters, leaving these young fishermen unemployed and desperate.
Onboard the Maersk Alabama, Hanks’ captain, in roomy khakis and a trim salt-and-pepper beard, sees two pirate skiffs coming up from behind. He executes some clever defensive maneuvers; but after an excitingly well-constructed action sequence, four pursuers manage to board his ship. (Commercial vessels at the time were prohibited from carrying defensive weapons; the pirates were brandishing AK-47s.) Two of the pirates (Barkhad Abdirahman and Mahat M. Ali) are young and nervous; a third (Faysal Ahmed) is a khat-chewing hothead who’s clearly dangerous. But the group’s leader, a man named Muse (Abdi), is something else. He’s sly and suspicious, and Abdi, with his skeletal face and unreadable eyes, projects an unsettling menace at first, before slowly opening up his character to reveal more conflicted emotions.
Greengrass cranks up considerable tension as Abdi conducts a search of the ship to locate missing crew members. When Phillips tries to buy the pirates off with cash from the ship’s strongbox, they refuse the offer —it’s millions they’ve been dreaming of. Finally, they flee in a motorized lifeboat, taking the captain with them. From this point, the movie becomes a study in claustrophobic intimacy, with Hanks charting his character’s dwindling chances of survival with little more than the tormenting uncertainty in his eyes.
From worldwide news reports of the time, and from Phillips’ subsequent memoir, we know what will ultimately happen. It’s a tribute to the director’s skill that he keeps us wondering if this maritime confrontation will really play out the same way again.
This fearless exercise in rampaging what-the-fuck may exceed your gaudiest expectations. Having developed his stone-faced federale from a goofy Grindhouse trailer into a 2010 feature, trash-o-matic director Robert Rodriguez now leads him into James Bond territory, complete with a smirking master criminal—played by Mel Gibson!—who’s intent on earth-shaking devastation.
The plot—like it matters—has Machete (Danny Trejo) being assigned by the president of the United States (Charlie Sheen!) to go down to Mexico and bring back a terrorist named Mendez (played with giddy flair by Demian Bichir), who has threatened to lob a missile into the White House. Mendez turns out to be a misunderstood guy with a split personality and a mechanical heart. There’s also Miss San Antonio (Amber Heard), a beauty-pageant addict with a roomful of automatic weapons; a one-eyed spitfire named Luz (Michelle Rodriguez, returning in the role); and a face-shifting assassin called the Chameleon, who’s played at various points by Cuba Gooding Jr., Antonio Banderas and Lady Gaga in an orange wig (she’s not bad, haters). There’s also a platoon of bordello whores led by a busty dominatrix (Sofia Vergara) whose attitude toward men is summed up in the line, “I chewed his balls off with my teeth.”
The movie has some pretty great stunts (especially the one with the boat and the helicopter), a ton of ultra-bloody violence (Machete slices a bad guy in half – lengthwise -- with his namesake weapon), and of course wall-to-wall cleavage. It’s all as over-the-top as anybody could hope, only more so.
What next for the Mexican avenger? A “preview” right at the top of the movie gives away the next installment of the series: Machete Kills Again…in Space!
I fail to grasp the point of making this movie. Given its title, you’d expect a music-packed salute to the now-defunct Bowery punk mecca. Instead, the picture focuses heavily on the life of the late CBGB owner Hilly Kristal, who’s played by Alan Rickman, who, as you may know, is English. Rickman’s pretty good, actually—with his frizzled hair and mild paunch he does resemble the mid-’70s Hilly. But his spaced-out delivery is most odd—he sounds like Professor Snape on ’ludes.
Rickman isn’t the movie’s central problem, though. Its central problem is everything else. Director Randall Miller shot the picture in Georgia (tax rebates), so the Bowery squalor we see recreated here is insufficiently fetid. And however much “authenticity” Miller may have striven for in building the club interiors (look, it’s the actual CBGB toilet!), the place is considerably more spacious than the real thing (now a John Varvatos clothing store), which had the layout of a bowling alley.
There’s also a feeling of trade-offs being made at every turn. Could the fact that we see so much of Hilly’s daughter Lisa (Ashley Greene) have something to do with the related fact that the real Lisa is one of the movie’s co-producers? And what about having Sting’s daughter, Mickey Sumner, play Patti Smith? Might that in any way have enabled the use of the Police track Roxanne in a performance scene toward the end? Just asking.
The casting is largely bizarre. Harry Potter vet Rupert Grint comes off best, adeptly playing Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome as the lovable doofus he was. (It must have helped to have the real Cheetah on set to provide guidance.) But Malin Akerman—of all people!—bears no resemblance whatsoever to Blondie’s Debby Harry; and Kyle Gallner is preposterously un-Lou-like as Lou Reed in an interview scene.
The music, of which there isn’t enough, is sadly disappointing. The big hole at the heart of it is the lack of Ramones tunes—really: CBGB without the Ramones. (The band’s conservators wisely denied permission for Ramones music to be used.) And the groups we do see playing—actors impersonating Talking Heads and Television and so forth—climb onto the cramped CBGB stage and deliver big, glossy renditions of famous songs taken right off the original records, which is very silly.
Rather than waste time seeing this movie, you’d be better-served just re-reading Please Kill Me, Legs McNeil’s peerless punk-rock oral history (from which many of the anecdotes in the film appear to have been lifted). CBGB just isn’t punk enough.