Sunday, April 6, 2014

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (2014)

Starring Chris Evens, Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language
Running Time: 136 Minutes

Steve 'Captain America' Rogers (Chris Evans) has settled into his new life in the 21st century. As an agent of SHIELD, he works for Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who sends Cap, Natasha 'Black Widow' Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and SHIELD's "Strike" unit out on missions. During one such particular mission to liberate a SHIELD boat from pirates, Cap discovers Natasha had an objective Fury kept secret from him: to extract information from the ship's computers.

Back in the US, Fury discovers that even he is locked out of the information Natasha recovered. When Cap demands to know why Fury kept the mission secret from him, Fury reveals the existence of Project: Insight - a fleet of heavily-armed helicarriers capable of locating and eliminating targets anywhere in the world.

Not long after, Fury is attacked by the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a mysterious assassin that no one seems to know the true identity of. He seeks Cap's help, but before he can reveal his concerns, Winter Soldier reappears and finishes the job. Cap is soon brought before Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), who demands to know why Fury went to see him. But Cap proves unwilling to reveal what Fury told him, and soon enough, Cap is branded a fugitive.

Not sure who to trust, Cap recruits Black Widow and Sam 'Falcon' Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Hunted by SHIELD, the team traces the source of the computer information that got Fury killed. What they find reveals a conspiracy that burns right in the heart of SHIELD itself, putting the entire world at risk.

And nipping at their heels the entire time is the Winter Soldier. Who is he? Who does he work for? What is his part in all this? Captain America may not live long enough to find out.

I mostly liked 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger. I felt like the movie just fell short of being great, a result of a third act that seemed rushed. I have no such qualms about The Winter Soldier.

This film rockets along through its 136 minutes, but doesn't feel long at all. The script handles its characters well, balancing dialogue, plot and action deftly. Unlike the recent Thor: The Dark World, this film feels like it has heft and meaning within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, I dare say that The Winter Soldier is one of the best of these Marvel movies, maybe even the best.

Captain America, like Superman, is sometimes a difficult nut to crack for audiences who see him as a big goody two-shoes. How is someone so noble, so honest, so aw-shucks good supposed to be relatable? Well, The Winter Soldier shows us how. Here, Cap struggles with his place in an organization that he finds increasingly frightening. His sense of duty compels him to stay, to do good deeds to protect people. But as the methods SHIELD uses become more and more repugnant to Cap, he questions his place among them.

He's not alone in this regard, either. Black Widow finds herself questioning her place with SHIELD, as well. As the layers of conspiracy peel back, she begins to realize what she was fighting for is murkier than she thought. Unlike Cap, Widow has been more than willing to get her hands dirty for SHIELD's cause. And she does not feel good about being used.

Chris Evans once again steps easily into the role of Captain America. Like Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark, he owns this role now. He makes it seem effortless, without making it seem like he's not trying. Evans gets the nobility of the character, and he gets the sense of loss and regret that comes with being so removed from his time, but he always feels warm and human. The script is careful to balance his heroics with more rounded moments for the character. It's fascinating to see a man who is so intelligent and powerful struggle to simply ask his neighbor on a date.

He also gets some great scenes with Anthony Mackie, discussing the plight of veterans who come home. These scenes verge on being heavy handed, but the two actors play them just right to make it all work. Mackie's Falcon makes a good wingman (har har) for Cap, someone who gets where Cap is coming from in a world that seems more and more cynical and distant for his liking.

Scarlett Johansson continues to be a fun presence as Black Widow, and this movie gives her the most emotional meat for her character so far. As with Evans, we know what to expect from her and she brings it. Natasha is a bit less sure of herself in a few scenes here, which is nice for a character who always seems so aloof.

Robert Redford classes up the joint as Alexander Pierce, and he doesn't bother slumming it even for a superhero flick. It's difficult to discuss his performance without spoiling some of the turns of the plot, but suffice it to say that Redford's presence is always effective, particularly his scenes with Cap and one scene at his home that's a real eye-opener.

The Winter Soldier doesn't skimp on the action front. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo prove themselves surprisingly adept at staging the big action sequences we've come to expect from these Marvel movies. I say surprisingly because their previous directing credits were episodes of TV sitcoms "Community" and "Arrested Development." Now, I love both of those shows, but aside from some of the more high-concept episodes of "Community," neither would to me indicate a career shift into big-budget, tentpole action films.

But there are a number of thrilling sequences in The Winter Soldier that prove just that. The fight sequences are absolutely what I wanted out of The First Avenger, with Cap kicking a ton of ass and taking names. The hand-to-hand combat is brutal and hits hard. And once the Winter Soldier enters the fray, things get even better. Sure, it's fun watching Cap take out rooms full of dudes, but the Winter Soldier provides him with a worthy opponent - and one with some emotional attachment, too.

And that brings us to my only qualm about this film: The Winter Soldier himself. The revelation of his identity comes somewhat late in the game, and his backstory isn't explored with as much depth as I would have liked. For a character so integral to Captain America, the film doesn't quite mine it for all the emotion it's worth.

Otherwise, The Winter Soldier is a crackling film. Part thriller, part action flick, part superhero flick, all awesome. It's fun, engrossing, and extremely well made. So far, Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is dominated by Iron Man 3 and The Winter Soldier, and we can only hope that Guardians of the Galaxy joins them at the top of the heap.