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CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) review

April 7, 2014

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written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

produced by: Kevin Feige

directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo

rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout)

runtime: 136 min.

U.S. release date: April 4, 2014

 

At the end of “Captain America: The First Avenger”, Colonel Nick Fury had assured a thawed out, time-displaced Steve Rogers that things haven’t changed all that much in 70 years. That there was still work to be done….a soldier’s work. For a hero who had seemingly lost everything, it was a reassuring statement, confirming that Rogers is needed. Indeed he is.

There are as many dark and brooding superheroes as there are wise-cracking, arrogant ones, but it’s hard to find an incorruptible, cynical-free man who’s willing to put others first and stand up for what’s right no matter what. Someone who’s humble and is a terrible liar. Someone who will get the job done, yet question whatever doesn’t feel right. A person with strong moral fiber, who leads by example and calls us higher without saying a word. That’s Steve Rogers and that’s why he’s needed – not just in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but in our world. Yeah, I know, he’s a comic book character. But he’s also a symbol of the best we can be. That’s why he’s needed.

But we live in a cynical world, where a sentinel of liberty, a Captain America, is scoffed at. Often labeled an outdated boy scout, there’s been a hesitancy to embrace such a pure defender of freedom and democracy. That may be why 2011’s “The First Avenger” didn’t gross as much as the other stand-alone Avengers movies. People would rather follow a blonde god or a brilliant albeit snarky inventor than a scrawny kid from Brooklyn. Not me.

For those reasons, Cap has always been the most compelling of Marvel Comics characters to me. It’s a challenge to do the right thing all the time and yet that’s just how Rogers is wired. But what if his stand-up character is challenged, when secrets and corruption belonging to the organization he’s committed to serve have surfaced? That’s the Steve Rogers screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have given us. They know that seeing Rogers wrestle with his place in life is more compelling for moviegoers than to see Cap go up against a big baddie. Thankfully, they also know that it’s also awesome to see Cap take out everyone in a crowded elevator or watch as motorcycle Cap single-handedly dismantles a hovercraft.

 

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For “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, Markus and McFeely (the duo who also wrote “The First Avenger”) delve into a recent-yet-classic story written by Ed Brubaker, one that has all those captivating elements. Brubaker’s is a densely layered story, worthy of a big-screen adaptation and Markus and McFeely adapt it in such a way that it builds off nicely from the character arch that began in “The First Avenger” and continued in 2012’s “Marvel’s Avengers”. With brothers Anthony and Joe Russo at the helm, they’ve made a movie that lifts up the Old School good guy, involves political paranoia, and delivers amazing action with just the right amount of wry humor. Personally, I consider it one of the best Marvel Studios movies yet.

The movie kicks off with Steve/Cap (Chris Evans) called upon to lead a mission to rescue a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel from Algerian pirates led by Georges Batroc (Georges St. Pierre), accompanied by Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) and a S.H.I.E.L.D. S.T.R.I.K.E. team led by Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo). It’s an intense sequence with echoes of Splinter Cell and ultimately winds up with suspicions toward both Natasha and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Cap had previously frowned upon Fury’s ethics (as witnessed in “Avengers”), but once he finds out Fury isn’t being completely upfront with him, Rogers begins to question who and what to follow.

Cap becomes suspicious when Fury informs him of the organization’s top-secret “Project: Insight”, a massive global satellite spy network that utilizes three massive Helicarriers as a way of eliminating potential threats. Behind this project is Fury’s old comrade, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), current member of the World Security Council who has his own secrets from Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. When the it looks like S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised, Cap is targeted as a prime suspect by Pierce and he and Natasha are soon hunted down by the mysterious lethal assassin known as The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

As threats pop up from both the past and present, Steve and Natasha have to figure out who they could trust in order to bring down this twisted version of homeland security. They find help in the form of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a former pararescue soldier trained in aerial combat. Together, with the assistance of Fury’s right hand woman, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Cap and his outnumbered renegades launch their own attack against an enemy that’s been hiding in plain sight for decades.

 

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In the same way “The First Avenger” was a nod to the pulpy war stories on the spinner rack, “The Winter Soldier” is a nod to the espionage films of the 70s (which is why Redford, star of the 1975 film “Three Days of the Condor” was selected). It ties in neatly and creatively to the prior MCU movies, but also stands on its own as a taut absorbing action thriller. For a change, here is a superhero movie that isn’t completely predictable, especially for those who only know these characters from the movies. Yet it even offers some legitimate twists for those aware of the source material.

When the subtitle was announced for a Captain America sequel, comic book fans knew what was coming, but producer Kevin Feige emphasized that the movie would find Steve Rogers continuing to acclimate himself to a modern-day world. Some of that was covered in “Avengers”, but since he is technically a 95 year-old WWII veteran, there’s definitely more to explore there. His visit to an elderly Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), one of the few people Steve still has a shared experience with, is a touching reminder of how lost he feels. Especially moving is how the Smithsonian’s Captain America exhibit offers a place of solace for Steve, like his own semblance of home.

That’s not to say this is a brooding piece. No, that’s not how Steve is wired. But it is emotionally reflective in some poignant and understandable ways, which is extremely rare for a “superhero blockbuster” movie. Although it delivers some of the best action I’ve seen in a Marvel Studios movie (outside of “Avengers”), “Winter Soldier” is mostly concerned with it’s title character. The heart of the movie indeed is figuring out where Cap finds himself. He’s the underdog here (as are his allies), questioning his place in the world and even causing others, like the Black Widow, to question her motives and actions as well. That shows that this is a movie that is less concerned with selling action figures and video game tie-ins. That will happen irregardless. The filmmakers here are wisely aware that they have an opportunity to provide potent development for a unique character and they do that in a rewarding fashion. Sure, the movie ends with a requisite climactic battle made possible by some impressive special effects and stunt work, but we’re also invested in these characters and the stakes they are up against.

 

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Third time is the charm for Evans, who delivers his best Steve Rogers yet. I remain continuously impressed with how well he embodies the spirit of Rogers. Those familiar with the character will know what I’m talking about and those who aren’t will find a rare representation of a superhero who may be naive to the world, but he’s also quite grounded because of the goodness at his core.

Evan’s interaction with his co-stars, Johansson and Mackie is one of the movie’s attractive qualities. Johansson’a Natasha is the opposite of who Steve is. She’s used to using lies and subterfuge to get her missions done, whereas Cap is straightforward and honest, wanting to know directly who he’s dealing with. As much as she knows that he needs her tech savvy and familiarity with the world as it is today, it’s also clear that Natasha needs Steve to remind her of that narrow path of justice. Mackie’s Sam Wilson, who counsels veterans with PTSD (a really nice touch) at the VA, has more in common with Steve which finds the two developing an effortless bond out of respect. Mackie provides the movie with some good-natured comedy, but he confidently holds his own in the action department, bringing the fan-favorite, The Falcon – one of the first African-American superheroes – to the big-screen in a fitting and enjoyable way.

Jackson has appeared in some capacity in just about every Marvel Studios movie, but he’s given more to do with Fury here. He’s involved in an intense action sequence earlier in the film, which serves as a catalyst to everything else in the story. Many were curious about Redford getting cast, but when the term “political thriller” was being tossed around, it seemed to understandably fit. He’s great, of course. Relaxed and smug as Pierce, Redford seems to relish a role that goes against type, channeling both confidence and class.

 

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Speaking of Pierce, if the movie does have a flaw it’s that the machinations of the surveillance device doesn’t really make much sense. I get where they’re going with it, but there was a whole lot of “then what?” going through my head. That’s a small gripe for a movie that does a tremendous job offering excitement, humor and thoughtfulness.

Other returning actors appear in smaller yet pivotal roles, giving the Russos (who had previously directed “You, Me and Dupree”, but confess to being huge comic book fans) a chance to establish the movie’s place within the MCU. The first time I saw the movie, the fanboy I was sitting next to literally leapt out of his seat when one particular recurring character was revealed. Hard to say if that scene warranted such a response, but I can’t deny that I wasn’t internally feeling the same way a couple times throughout the movie.

Having seen “Winter Soldier” in good old 2D and IMAX 3D, I can attest that the 3D conversion isn’t really all that. You’d think with a shield being thrown around, it would be a little more impressive, but there’s nothing outstanding about the third dimension here. You’re better off seeing it in 2D with a stellar sound system, like Dolby ATMOS.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is definitely one of my favorite movies of the year. That’s not just because I’ve always liked the character or the fantastic action and the game-changing story. It’s because in Cap we have an honest man who reminds us how hard it is to be courageous and brave in uncertain times. That’s something I can easily get behind as I anticipate seeing Cap again in next year’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron”.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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