Captain America: The Winter Soldier

captain_america_the_winter_soldier_5_evans“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a rarity, a sequel that’s as good and as entertaining as the first film, “Captain America: The First Avenger,” without imitating itw predecessor’s qualities. 

You may recall the 2011  movie was an engaging origin story, and so the second entry is a logical follow-up and yet different in terms of narrative, characterization and mood.

As co-directed by the sibling Anthony and Joe Russo, “The Winter Soldier” finds the right balance between thrilling action set-pieces, CGI effects, and character development. Reducing the quota of special effects,  which now a days dominate most Hollywood spectacles, there is something old-fashioned in the new installment, and Marvel should be commended for that.

End result is a satisfying picture that’s bound to do well for Marvel, when it opens March 28, though not the robut returns yileded by Marvel’s other superheros flicks, “Thor” and “The Avengers.”

The Russo brothers are obviously talented filmmakers, and I wonder why it has taken hem over a decade to make a feature; their last one was “Welcome to Collingwood,” back in 2002, and in the intervening years, they have worked on serial TV.

Marvel has already announced the next chapter, “Captain America,” to be released in May of 2015, and based on the anticipated critical acclaim and commercial success of “The Winter Soldier,” the fans of the franchise should be eager to see it.

By standards of comic strip heroes, the new “Captain America: is more grounded in our reality and politics, and, thematically, more reliant on suspenseful intrigues.  Indeed, if in “The First Avenger,” Steve Rogers fought against a bunch Nazis known as Hydra, in “Winter Soldier,” he is pitted against a more interesting and realistic villain, the military-industrial complex.

The screenplay, again penned by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is involving, relevant, and occasionally extremely clever, boasting a tale that is rich in its text and subtext.  Reflecting the zeitgeist, the tale is concerned with such timely issues as drone warfare, NSA spying, individual freedom, privacy, all themes that bear more resonance to the average American viewers than the sinister foes of the earlier chapter (and those of other franchises)

The casting of Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce is also a smart move.  In his late 70s, Redford (always an underrated actor because of his good looks and star charisma) brings gravitas to the part, based on the baggage and associations with all the political movies that he made in the 1970s.  Living up to his character’s name, Pierce represents a rigid authority figure that would do anything in the name of the public’s defense. Captain Rogers describes him as a man “holding a gun to everyone on Earth and calling it protection.”

Pierce’s secret Project Insight consists of three sophisticated drone-like “helicarriers” whose weaponry can neutralize threats from a safe remove. If needed, they can even analyze data from personal and public records to identify potential hostile forces.

Enter S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (well played by Samuel L. Jackson), a friend of Pierce’s, who’s alarmed by Insight’s readiness to launch and asks for a delay. Pierce reluctantly obliges, but a car chase in downtown D.C. that almost kills Fury forces him to change his mind.

Like all paranoia thrillers, some of which starred Redford as a young man the ensuing saga involves chases, escapes, double lives, trustworthy allies who turn out to be enemies. In due time, Rogers reaizes that he can only trust the former KGB agent and Fury protegee Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and former Army paratrooper Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie).

Once this trio is formed, the story gets even more interesting as they have to face the Winter Soldier, a vet lethal murderer with a silvery robotic arm. The true identity of this masked man should be familiar to those viewers who are well versed in the lore of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s “Captain America” comics.

Some scenes stand out, as for example the one in which the newly defrosted Rogers “reenters,” and visits his own Smithsonian exhibition, or reunites with his love interest, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).

There is witty humor and playful self-consciousness in the chapters describing how Rogers tries to reacquaint himself with American politics and pop culture over the past half century, including the classic 1980s picture, “WarGames.”

Returning star Chris Evans, a likeable if not great actor, is more commanding here than he was in the first film due to the richer and more multi-dimensional part he plays. Equally appealing and wistful is Scarlett Johansson as Natasha, though her character is less determined and less haunted by the past than Rogers.

Redford, playing a secondary part for the first time in his fifty year career, nails his role with impressive precision, showing joy in being cast against his established screen image.

Unlike most action and comic strip directors, the Russos show savvy knowledge in alternating the requisite cliffhangers of these genres with emotionally engaging dialogue scenes.  There is an impressive elevator scene in which Rogers fights with many opponents between penthouse and lobby. The movie’s anticipated climax, in which the helicarriers threaten to luanch a massive attack, will delight young viewers, even if mature viewers will find it overextended.  On the other hand, older sci-fi fans will rejoice upon spotting Jenny Agutter (of “Logan’s Run” fame) reprising her brief “Avengers” role as a member of the “World Security Council.”

Production values are polished across the board, especially sharp imagery by cinematographer Trent Opaloch (who previously shot “District 9 and “Elysium”), who makes the most of Washington D.C. locations.