Tom Hanks has one of the world's most famous mugs.
Hanks is easily one of the most easily recognized, most beloved, and downright iconic actors of American cinema. With a reputation for being one of Hollywood's nicest guys, at least among the A-listers, there was nary an ounce of cynicism when it was announced that Hanks would tackle one of the few contemporary icons even more beloved, Mister Rogers, in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
You can't help but recognize him, but time and time again you simply surrender yourself to Hanks because even if you can't quite forget its Hanks up there on the big screen you still feel like you're in safe hands when it's a Tom Hanks motion picture.
Tom Hanks isn't a stranger to writing screenplays, though it's far from commonplace. Hanks seems to favor stories about simple people living in simpler times, an oversimplification of the stories he told in 1996's semi-beloved That Thing You Do! and in 2011's Larry Crowne, an under-appreciated little gem that never found much of an audience that loved or hated it.
Larry Crowne was a good film, not a great one.
We fell a little bit more in love with Hanks recently when he became one of the first celebrities to be diagnosed with COVID-19. While his symptoms were for the most part rather mild-to-moderate, just the fact that Hanks acquired COVID-19 seemed to make him, once again, feel like one of us.
Hanks has already gone on record lamenting that his latest effort, the World War II themed Greyhound, will find its cinematic life thanks to distribution by Apple TV+, a niche screening release amidst a worldwide pandemic that limits the awe that one expects to experience while watching a larger than life wartime motion picture on the big screen.
However, the truth is that without the Hanks name attached to it Greyhound wouldn't have ever been in the running for anything resembling a theatrical wide release. Despite its World War II cred and setting amidst the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, Greyhound is essentially yet another Hanks story about a simple man, in this case the first-time captain found in C.S. Forester's 1955 novel "The Good Shepherd," tackling the not so simple task of leading a convoy of allied ships and thousands of soldiers across the treacherous waters known as the "Black Pit" to the front lines of World War II. Without air cover protection for a full five days, Captain Krause and convoy must weave their way through the surrounding Nazi U-boats if they are to survive and give the allies a chance to win the war.
It's a not so simple task, I suppose. But, Hanks's Captain Krause is still a simple man, a driven but relative novice compared to the men he's tasked with leading who wonders if he's up to the task but who seldom reveals enough of his inner workings to make us actually care about him. We know that he's got a girl back home, of course, with Elisabeth Shue's film bookends meant to humanize the mission but mostly they just serve to drive home how dehumanizing this entire affair actually is as win or lose Hanks is either far from home, far from her, or just plain dead.
Those are the options.
Greyhound could have easily not been a simple cinematic experience. Greyhound could have been layered and complex and engaging and an emotionally resonant story filled with action and meaning. C.S. Forester's novel is, and yes I've read it, and it's easy to understand why Hanks was drawn to Forester's richly written, immersive storytelling.
Unfortunately, it doesn't translate here.
Listed at 91 minutes, the actual meat of Greyhound's storytelling runs at about 80 minutes and that feels generous. Hanks's script skims the surface, wartime pun intended, of the story that's available here and tells nary a story about the souls whose action unfolds here. There are moments that it feels like we're going to get to know Captain Krause, but then Hanks pulls back and director Aaron Schneider, who last directed 2009's Get Low, doesn't seem confident enough to challenge Hanks or his choices here.
There's a story waiting to happen here. It never happens.
There's a tension in Greyhound as Krause plays a naval cat-and-mouse game with Germany's taunting Nazi U-boats, though the tension doesn't really live anywhere other than inside the cramped quarters of USS Kidd as the USS Keeling. If there's a trademark of really effective naval motion pictures, it's that claustrophic sense of overwhelm one feels when high-tension, high-stakes action unfolds in a space barely large enough for decently in shape seamen to walk by one another. We feel some of that tension here, though we never really get to know Krause's practically unidentified right-hand man (Stephen Graham) or Cleveland (Rob Morgan), whose name alone affords the film one of its more humanizing, meaningful scenes. Karl Glusman takes his one-note sonar operator and gives him a couple extra notes, a welcome addition in a film where we just really don't get to know anyone including Captain Krause himself.
There's a dark, greyish atmosphere that envelopes much of what unfolds in Greyhound, an appropriate color scheme I suppose in a film that never quite feels real immersed in its sea of special effects and computer-generated sea of histrionic threats and faux menace. The threats never quite feel as threatening as they should here and while the menace avoids cartoonishness it pales in comparison to the pandemic that has claimed thousands of lives in the very real world into which Greyhound is released.
Greyhound isn't a bad film and Tom Hanks certainly isn't bad in it. Hanks is most likely incapable of ever giving a bad performance, though this is certainly one of those films where you never quite forget Captain Krause is really Tom Hanks and that most likely means that everything's going to be alright because everything in the world is better with Tom Hanks in it. There's just no escaping that Greyhound coulda been and shoulda been a better motion picture and, sadly enough, Hanks's overly simplified storytelling is at least partly to blame here along with Schneider's clever but almost Krause-like directorial effort.
It's hard not to expect Greyhound to go the way of films like That Thing You Do! and Larry Crowne, films that barely made a blip upon release but films that are remembered with a certain fondness not because they're suddenly great films but because Tom Hanks wrote and starred in them and, man, we really love that Tom Hanks.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic