Reviewer rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS
(M, 134 minutes). Opens Thursday.
★★★☆

In Captain Phillips, a tense and sometimes unexpected thriller, director Paul Greengrass gets the camera so close to Tom Hanks's hijacked sailor Richard Phillips that you can see the round imprint in his forehead where a Somali pirate's gun has been pressed against it. For all the jittery acceleration and immediacy of this tightly contained tale, it's that lingering mark which defines this strong drama. The movie never pretends that anyone involved can simply go back to how their life was.

Adapted by Billy Ray (State of Play, The Hunger Games) from Phillips's aptly titled memoir of his container ship's hijacking in April 2009 off the Horn of Africa and his subsequent kidnapping - A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea - Captain Phillips is tailor-made for Greengrass, the British filmmaker best known for 2004's The Bourne Supremacy and 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum.

Greengrass reinvented the action film by rooting it in the now, weaving together faces and technology so that the next moment was all that mattered and hand-to-hand combat became a tightly framed blur. His shaky-cam aesthetic pitched over into self-mockery on 2010's Iraq War fantasy Green Zone, but it makes sense in these increasingly tiny spaces where threats and fear repeatedly entangle. It helps that there's no real hand-to-hand combat - the fight here is just to stay alive a little longer.

Greengrass's considerable visual energy is focused by the Maersk Alabama, the container ship Captain Phillips commands. Like the train in Unstoppable, the late Tony Scott's final feature, the vast squat boat anchors the camera. In the water it looks like some prehistoric beast, loaded with containers, and the tiny outlaw skiffs that first pursue it look like buzzing insects.

As with the recent Danish drama, Tobias Lindholm's fine A Hijacking, everyone involved is playing the part commerce dictates. Phillips and his grizzled crew (there aren't any cute young Hollywood deck hands) are in the front line of globalisation, shipping goods through dangerous waters where warlords send out former fishermen to hijack ships for ransom.

"No al-Qaeda here," promises one of the hijackers, the resourceful Muse (Barkhad Abdi), "just business".

In Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, Somali foot soldiers were grouped together without distinction as "skinnies", but here the four who eventually get aboard the Maersk Alabama after an uneven battle of assault rifles versus water cannons are individual characters, each with a role in Muse's plan. They are violently threatening - a situation accentuated by their use of the narcotic plant khat - but they're never otherworldly or monstrous; the youngest is scared, the hothead challenges Muse.

The quartet are in over their heads, especially once the US Navy arrives. Greengrass gives us the now standard military jargon and control room hum that could come from any military film, especially once the Navy SEALS arrive (looking considerably larger than those in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty), but it's only interesting in terms of seeing how the Somalis are completely overwhelmed and how they react to a situation spinning rapidly out of their control. Futility supersedes ferocity.

Tom Hanks also helps keep the picture keyed in to the intimate. Stocky of build and with a greying goatee, he brings a mix of foreboding and dedication to his maritime officer. Phillips has a family picture on his coffee mug, but he's brisk and forthright with his crew and the movie doesn't try to make you like him or his Boston accent. It's an unobtrusive, immediate performance that feels authentic without going beyond the physical reflection of his increasingly shattered emotions.

Apart from the US military grandstanding, Captain Phillips is thankfully stripped down. While there are mentions of the White House's orders - Phillips couldn't be allowed to be taken ashore to the lawless Somalia - there are no cuts to the halls of Washington or a teary return to the victim's Vermont home briefly seen at the movie's opening. The film stays on the water, or sometimes in it, and that expertly zips the lengthy running time along.

Yet the best element could still have been easily trimmed. It's the handful of scenes that come after the usual closing shots that denote mission accomplished which elevate Captain Phillips. Bloody and psychologically striking, they're shorn of anything remotely triumphant or the belief that there were heroes who simply lived happily ever after.

Greengrass finally lets that next moment encompass a whole lifetime.