Monday, April 7, 2014


(US - 2014)

Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Jenny Agutter, Toby Jones, Hayley Atwell, Maximiliano Hernandez, Callan Mulvey, Garry Shandling, Chin Han, Georges St-Pierre, Salvator Xuereb. (PG-13, 136 mins)

Around the time Joss Whedon got the AVENGERS gig, there seemed to be a conscious effort by Marvel to bring some outside-the-box personality to the proceedings while still meeting the demand for intense action and grandiose visual effects. Shane Black brought his patented LETHAL WEAPON smartassery to IRON MAN 3 while semi-regular GAME OF THRONES director Alan Taylor fashioned an appropriately darker THOR: THE DARK WORLD.  One could argue that the trend started before Whedon, as CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER director Joe Johnston utilized some of the same WWII-set atmosphere way back in 1990's THE ROCKETEER.  For the sequel, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, the sibling directing team of Anthony and Joe Russo seem as unlikely a choice as you can conceive.  Best known for directing episodes of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and COMMUNITY, the pair hadn't made a film since the 2006 comedy YOU, ME AND DUPREE but here reveal themselves to be secret '70s post-Watergate political paranoia/conspiracy fans.  The spirit of Alan J. Pakula seems to permeate THE WINTER SOLDIER, and it's an interesting approach that keeps things fresh and exciting.  Does the world need another run-of-the-mill superhero movie?  Most of these films are entertaining on their own, but I've found that even the ones I really like--SPIDER-MAN 2, IRON MAN and THE AVENGERS, for instance--I never feel compelled to own or even revisit (Christopher Nolan's DARK KNIGHT trilogy being an exception).  Letting the filmmakers bring their own style or ambitions to these films gives them something more tangible than just wall-to-wall CGI.  I mean, be honest--it made a ton of money, but how many people really like IRON MAN 2?

The Russo brothers and returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely open the film in the present day, two years after the events of THE AVENGERS.  Steve Rogers/Cap (Chris Evans) is still adjusting to the modern world, regularly updating his list of things to check out ("See ROCKY (ROCKY II?)"  S.H.I.E.L.D. head agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) informs Rogers of Project Insight, a secret operation involving three helicarriers routed to various spy satellites around the globe for the purpose of pre-emptively halting terror threats.  After he receives a flash drive from Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Fury is unable to access the encrypted data and is soon ambushed by mysterious agents posing as cops.  Meanwhile, Rogers incurs the wrath of top-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), who believes he's up to something with Fury. Soon, Rogers, Romanoff, and Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) find themselves on the run after uncovering information about HYDRA, a rogue unit operating within and against S.H.I.E.L.D., and their top assassin is the unstoppable Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), whose true identity--not a surprise to Marvel fans--makes him closer to Cap than the hero realizes.

I enjoyed Johnston's THE FIRST AVENGER but found it generally forgettable despite the wonderful WWII-era production design.  But this is a different story.  One of the best films in the Marvel canon, THE WINTER SOLDIER is a much darker work, jettisoning the 1940s idealism for a strong sense of modern cynicism.  There's a rampant mistrust of government and its abuses of power throughout, and while Cap decries the measures S.H.I.E.L.D. is taking in the name of protecting the people, Fury reminds him that the Greatest Generation has its own issues and shouldn't be pointing fingers.  Also note how Pierce informs Cap that "building a better world sometimes means tearing the old one down."  There's much humor throughout, with Rogers and Romanoff frequently coming off like a pair of ballbusting partners in a cop buddy movie, and Cap looking at another night in by explaining "All the guys in my barbershop quartet are dead," and nods and inside jokes (including a quick reference to Jackson's Jules Winnfield from PULP FICTION).  But where THE WINTER SOLDIER really succeeds is not with its title-sharing villain (Stan is fine, but he's really a secondary bad guy), but with its vividly 1970s atmosphere--not in terms of the look, obviously, but in the style.  It plays a lot like a Marvel superhero version of THE PARALLAX VIEW, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, or ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (watch the tense scene where Rogers boards an increasingly crowded elevator and realizes he's a target), and one of the key elements is the inspired and almost subversive casting of Redford as the primary villain.  Redford acts infrequently these days, and never in huge films of this sort, but seeing him play the kind of callous, duplicitious, well-connected string-puller that his characters used to face decades ago is a treat for fans of the screen legend.  Redford's casting isn't mandatory for the film to work, but it adds a clever layer to the proceedings (had he turned it down, I can picture Warren Beatty serving the same function), and fortunately, the Russos don't let him down.

While the conspiracy elements inevitably take a back seat to non-stop CGI action in the latter half, it's generally convincing and well-handled.  Some of the up-close fight scenes have a too-dizzying shaky-cam element to them, but it's not too overwhelming and it makes up a small percentage of the film.  In keeping with the '70s aesthetic, many of the action scenes and a couple of car chases are handled, for the most part, practically, thanks to second-unit director and veteran stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos, who cut his teeth working on B-movies by the likes of William Lustig (MANIAC) back in the '80s.  Razatos has done second-unit work for a number of CGI-heavy action films in recent years, like THE EXPENDABLES and last two FAST & FURIOUS entries, but the Russos use him for his old-school skills here, and he does some exemplary work.  Given my lukewarm response to THE FIRST AVENGER and my general one-and-done sentiments when it comes to watching most of these things, I found THE WINTER SOLDIER to be a cut above the norm.  It's a superhero film with a dark, gritty streak, and its unusual fusion of comic book action and cynical conspiracy thriller makes it an unpredictable spring surprise at the multiplex.

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