Summer popcorn movies are hereby put on notice to get cracking. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is every rousing, whup-ass thing you want in an escapist adventure. And did I detect a hint of depth under the dazzle? A little bit. So why kick a gift horse?
To play catch-up in the Marvel Comics universe: Captain America is really Steve Rogers, a scrawny Brooklyn kid transformed into a supersoldier to fight the Nazis. In 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, a more-than-decent period piece directed by Joe Johnston, Chris Evans brought the character created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby to vivid, surprisingly dimensional life. Steve ended the war cryogenically frozen, waking up in the present for 2012’s The Avengers, a Joss Whedon blockbuster so loaded with antics from the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man and the like that we never learned how Steve felt after being defrosted.
We do now. It’s Steve’s disorientation after 70 years on ice that gets Captain America: The Winter Soldier off to such an exhilarating comic start. Steve keeps a pop-culture to-do list, including disco, Thai food and Star Wars/Trek. His new buddy, Army paratrooper Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a.k.a. the Falcon, says all Steve needs is the Marvin Gaye soundtrack from Trouble Man. Good advice. Steve gets another kind of lesson from Natasha Romanoff, played by Scarlett Johansson with irresistible sass and sparkle. A former KGB agent known as the Black Widow for her fighting skills, Natasha lays a smooch on Steve and asks, “Is that your first kiss since 1945?” Steve thinks he did pretty well for a guy who’s 99 years old.
The directing brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, with sitcom experience ranging from Arrested Development to Community, know how to pace a film. And their jones for handheld cameras, an irritant to some, helps give a hotbutton spin to the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely when it grapples with real political issues.
Don’t panic. No one is turning Captain America into an academic PBS thumb-sucker. But there is trouble at S.H.I.E.L.D., whose eye-patched chief, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson at his priceless, snarling best), smells a rat on the inside. His instincts nearly get him killed during a car chase on the streets of D.C. The film hits an action peak as cop cars pummel Fury’s armored vehicle and he barks orders to the vehicle’s voice guidance system. It’s the human brain and its computer equivalent working in tandem, and the result is tremendously exciting. Kudos to Jackson. In his sixth go at the role, he is still the quintessence of cool.
Project Insight proves a formidable enemy. It’s a top-secret program, featuring drone-like helicarriers that not only spy on citizens but can ID and destroy hostiles before they become hostiles. The Donald Rumsfeld of the program is Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), a smoothie with secrets of his own. Redford is a blast, and looks to be having one as well by sliming his heroic image. Slime looks damn good on him.
It also sets up the battle. For Steve, Project Insight is “holding a gun to everyone on Earth and calling it protection.” It’s up to Captain America, Black Widow and the Falcon to bring down the baddies, including the mysterious Winter Soldier, a seemingly unkillable assassin. To avoid spoilers, I’m shutting down. Maybe you’ll get some answers in the latest film chapter in the saga of Captain America: Avengers: Age of Ultron, due next year. Powered by a dynamite Evans and a first-rate cast, this movie overcomes its plot holes and 3D too-muchness by making human frailty its primary focus. Talk about getting your priorities straight.