Friday, April 4, 2014

S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Up: CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER


What keeps the movies in Marvel’s Avengers multi-franchise franchise somewhat fresh is the way each film exists in a different setting and plays variations on different genres. They’re all shot in a bright house style, the tone always serious enough to generate suspense, but light enough to accommodate bantering between chummy characters. In other words, going into one of these movies you know exactly what you’re going to get, but not necessarily the way you’ll get it. Captain America: The First Avenger was a B-movie World War II picture with snarling Nazis, martyred scientists, and brave soldiers, with a square-jawed superpowered all-American hero in the center. Now its sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, finds the star spangled man dropped into a paranoid conspiracy actioner, danger from unexpected sources at every turn.

In this new film, the Captain is still the same old patriotic freedom fighter he always was. Captain America may not be the role Chris Evans was born to play, but, between his capacity for unsentimental earnestness and obvious classically handsome features, it’s certainly the superhero role he was born to play. After being frozen in a block of ice for 70 years, thawed out, welcomed into SHIELD (the fictional Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division), and sent out to fight off an alien invasion with the help of Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk, he’s finding himself borderline disillusioned. He asks Director Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) why the intelligence community is ramping up pervasive worldwide surveillance, building a massive apparatus to predict trouble and arrange preemptive strikes. Fury wearily tells him the world has grown dangerous, and they must be prepared for anything. Cold comfort, that.

The film smartly pivots from stars-and-stripes propaganda to clammy paranoia. In the first action scene Captain America and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) free hostages on a freighter in a fanfare of military might. But it’s not long before a high-ranking SHIELD official is gunned down by an assassin, men in suits force good spies on dubious missions, and Fury whispers to the Captain a stern warning:  “no one can be trusted.” It’s a surprisingly sharp – and totally on-the-nose – commentary on contemporary concerns over NSA surveillance and intelligence agency overreach. Though, shadowy governmental conspiracies aren’t exactly only current. Robert Redford, with a history of appearing in paranoid thrillers from Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men to Sneakers and Spy Game, appears as a suit, exuding gravitas in a fun echo of the genre’s past.

What follows is a tangle of twists and turns punctuated with exciting, lengthy action sequences all around Washington D.C. as loyal SHIELD agents reveal dark intent and showy conspiracies are yanked into the light. The blows land harder for the film’s mercilessness when it comes to mortally wounding characters and institutions you’d think the Marvel Cinematic Universe would want to keep around. The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely moves quickly and coherently, dragging in familiar franchise faces (Sebastian Stan, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, and Jenny Agutter) while smoothly integrating new characters into the action. I particularly enjoyed Anthony Mackie as a former soldier who finds new reason to fight when Captain America calls upon him and quickly establishes an easy, warm friendship between them. It’s nice the movie takes time between the explosions and chaos to make new friends and keep the old, interested in some small way in relationships and how they play out through slam-bang rat-a-tat movement.

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo, sitcom veterans who, Community paintball episodes aside, make a big action debut here, filming the action in a clean and comprehensible style. The early boat-set sequence includes plenty of shots that refreshingly reveal the entire action head-to-toe, sometimes for seconds at a time. In later car chases, gun battles, fisticuffs, and aerial commotions, they cut rather deftly between perspectives and don’t let chaotic close-up inserts confuse too badly. The majority of the action – a one-against-ten fistfight in an elevator, a man in a winged jetpack outsmarting heat-seeking missiles – is cleverly staged. It’s all so engaging and enjoyable that it’s a bit of a let down to admit it’s also all a tad exhausting in the end. It’s exciting and it wore me out. After over two hours with often pervasive rounds of gunfire – minions just shoot and shoot and shoot, the body count looming large – it grows wearying. By the time the movie is well into its big blowout finale, twists and surprises largely in its rearview, I was ready for the punching and shooting to reach their inevitable end. It’s fun, but I had my fill.

Still, reliable and dependable, this Marvel universe of interlocking franchises has dropped another quality product off of the assembly line. At worst, these films can feel slight and predictable, pinned in by the corporate dictates of the overarching narrative. Much as I’ve enjoyed all of these movies to some extent or another, I’m interested, but not overly invested in the big picture. In individual films, moments of straight-faced near-campiness (anything Asgardian in the Thor movies), side pleasures (the first Captain America’s unexpected and delightful musical number), and funny supporting performances (Tom Hiddleston, Sam Rockwell, Kat Dennings, Tommy Lee Jones), stick with me the most. So it is to the filmmakers’ credit that in Captain America: The Winter Soldier they shake things up, providing all the expected thrills and smiles along with a welcome modicum of complexity to the characters' primary-colors comic book world as it crumbles around them in entertaining explosiveness.

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