'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'
(Chris Evans, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, et al / PG-13 / 128 mins)
Overview: Steve Rogers continues his journey as the super-powered American soldier who's grasping to find his place in a modern world after being frozen in ice since WWII with this Marvel Studios sequel. Chris Evans returns to star, with Community director/producers Joe and Anthony Russo helming.
Verdict: From the corniest of all names to the Wonder Bread personality of Steve Rogers whether he was in costume or not, the 1940s version of Captain America we saw in the 2011 movie was one of the blander superheroes in the Marvel Universe.
One might think the unfrozen Steve/Cap who was part of the ensemble in “The Avengers” might not be able to sustain the lead in a modern-day adventure, but the good news is in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” we not only get an edgier, more complex, more compelling storyline, we get the most badass 95-year-old the world has ever known.
Looking as pumped up as a potential first-round NFL draft choice at a scouting combine and displaying a better honed sense of humor than he possessed back in the day, Steve/Cap (Chris Evans) is finding his way around modern-day Washington, trying to soak up all he can about everything he’s missed. Steve walks around with a little notebook filled with entries such as “Steve Jobs/Apple” and “Moon Landing.” (He also makes a side trip to the Smithsonian, where they have an awesome exhibit about … Captain America.)
Under the watchful eye of Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury — and I mean that literally, as Nick has just the one good eye — Steve finds himself working with the duplicitous Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) as agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, which is engaged in a multilayered, generation-spanning war with HYDRA, the evil organization formed by the Nazis. Natasha flirts with Steve and encourages him to go out and get, um, lucky. There’s an obvious chemistry between them, but they resist the romance, which is probably a good idea given the number of issues they’re both working on.
Amid a number of terrific action sequences with the usual CGI destruction and some well-choreographed hand-to-hand (and hand-to-shield) combat, we get a couple of nifty twists and turns that keep us guessing as to who’s on the side of good, who’s on the side of evil — and who’s wavering, big-time. The score is more reminiscent of a “Dark Knight” movie than a typical Marvel romp, and there are a number of serious supporting performances (most notably Toby Jones) that lend weight to the storyline.
At its best, “The Winter Soldier” reminded me of a “Bourne” movie, or a classic 1970s spy thriller such as “Three Days of the Condor” or “The Parallax View.” In fact we get the “Condor” star himself, Robert Redford, playing against type in a finely modulated performance as Director of U.S. Security Alexander Pierce, who believes the best way to root out threats is to find them before they attack. As Pierce coolly explains, to save 7 billion people, he’ll gladly eliminate 20 million.