Captain America: The Winter Soldier
3 out of 4 stars
Despite lagging behind the first “Iron Man” in terms of overall quality and satisfaction, this second of three planned installments of “Captain America” is by far the next best effort thus far in the Marvel/Avengers adaptation franchise.
First the good news …
“CA: TWS” (at least by present-day standards) keeps its use of CGI in check and to a relative minimum. While delivering more than enough bells and whistles to keep the fanboy faithful giddy with geek delight, it never strays into the kind of bombastic excess found in the eponymous “Avengers” outing or the most recent “Thor.” It’s busy, loud and fast but never so much that you can’t tell what’s happening and to whom. For a movie such as this, that’s indeed high praise.
Unlike most screenplays penned by committee (in this case five writers), it is far more intelligent and topical than one could possibly expect. The plot is top-heavy (in a good way) with cat-and-mouse, paranoid-riddled, secret agent one-upmanship and a kind of self-preservation political wrangling that is usually reserved for James Bond flicks or higher-brow dramatic thrillers. It addresses recent government insider leaks, defense spending malfeasance and zero-sum global perspectives all while rightfully acknowledging that freedom is not free, whether it is in the cost of dollars or human lives.
With one notable exception, the acting is very good and sometimes exceptional. Reprising his role as Avenger overseer Nick Fury, Samuel L. Jackson delivers what some might consider a co-lead performance. While disappearing for long stretches at a time, Jackson owns the screen whenever he is seen and his Fury here bears more than a passing resemblance to his Jules from “Pulp Fiction” and filmmakers acknowledge this in a most clever, humorous manner.
Playing a veteran of the current Middle Eastern U.S. war, Anthony Mackie is willfully drafted into becoming a sidekick of sorts and makes a smooth transaction from citizen to his superhero Falcon persona. While given significantly more to do than she was in “The Avengers,” Scarlett Johansson as Natasha/Black Widow is again called on to strut around in skin-tight leather and kick major tail, but when called on to actually act beyond the leather and action she only does OK.
The filmmakers’ masterstroke in terms of casting (not surprisingly) comes in the form of the evil foils. As the co-title character Winter Soldier, the Romanian-born Sebastian Stan is a mix of Bane from “The Dark Knight Rises” and the “Terminator” and “Robocop” title characters. The writers keep his true identity a secret for as long as possible and Stan’s model looks coupled with ultra-imposing and menacing villain presence will transcend gender interest. Stan’s heartthrob status is only a matter of time.
Recalling Darth Vader and Dick Cheney (who many believe to be the same person), Robert Redford plays Alexander Pierce, a steely-cool, unflappable and completely unrepentant security agency overlord totally unbothered with the notion of sacrificing a few million for the sake of billions (again in both dollar and human numbers). After 50-plus years of always playing protagonists (and yes, the bank-robbing Sundance Kid was a protagonist), it’s a pure joy watching Redford lose himself in this role.
Buff and ripped to the nth degree with a mug that screams “Abercrombie & Fitch,” Chris Evans nonetheless lacks the minimal acting chops required to make his Captain America/Steve Rogers character fully engaging and/or memorable. It doesn’t help matters that Evans was also one of the co-leads in the ill-fated “Fantastic Four” franchise and that the level of success of every other role he’s ever had was dependant on how much of his bare skin was shown.
While not the obvious choice for a project of this scale, longtime TV series director brothers Anthony and Joe Russo (“Community,” “Happy Endings”) appoint themselves well while displaying high levels of assurance, grasp of story and cinematic vision. It’s a pity they also didn’t employ more brevity.
In what has now become the norm instead of the exception, “CA: TWS” follows the lead of recent summer blockbuster hopefuls (yes, Disney considers this to be the first 2014 summer flick) by not knowing when to leave well enough alone. While never lagging as such, it is 138 minutes long and overstays its welcome by a good half-hour, most of which comes in the form of multiple false endings.
Going “super-size” with summer action fare looks like something that is here to stay and it’s unlikely most general audiences will complain, but theater operators hate the trend (longer movies = less showings and lower revenues). Replace Evans with almost anyone else and bring it in under two hours and “CA: TWS” would have gone from a weak three stars to a strong three-and-a-half star rating. (Disney)