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MOVIE REVIEW: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

 

May 8, 2014

Captain America and company are back with what is undisputably the best script and most well told and constructed story of any super hero movie to date - CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. With a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley and the film now helmed by newcomers to the Marvel world, Anthony and Joe Russo, the bar of excellence is elevated to astronomical levels that future writers and directors in not only the Marvel universe, but others, will be hard pressed to equal let alone surpass.

An exhilarating, adrenalin fueled thrill ride that leaves you not only breathless but craving more, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is as close to perfect an action film as I have seen, achieving that perfect balance of action, VFX/ CGI, story, character, performance, messaging, pacing and satisfaction. An espionage and conspiracy thriller at its core, the script is not only intelligent, but timely and topical with a thematically refreshing political overlay, reflecting the world - and country - in which we now live, shifting Captain America's long established comic book focus of fighting for freedom and democracy to now fighting for truth and integrity in today's global dynamic. Dare I now ask: How long do I have to wait for the next chapter?

When we last saw Cap in "Captain America: First Avenger", he had been thawed out after his almost 60 year deep freeze and was acclimating to the changed world and ever changing times of the 21st Century and America's new views on freedom, democracy and world peace. Since thereafter coming to the aid of his fellow Avengers in New York and joining in the fray to save the world, Cap aka Steve Rogers has been living quietly in Washington, D.C. handling various active assignments from his enigmatic S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Nick Fury on an "as needed", "need to know" basis. For a man so grounded in his principles of truth, honesty, freedom and democracy, it's interesting to watch Cap's inner psychological battle grappling with working for what is essentially a clandestine C.I.A. spy agency extension. When called into duty, Cap is at his best, at his most comfortable, collaboratively working with ex-KGB Black Widow aka Natasha Romanoff and other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and government agencies in hotbed special ops situations. But he still has problems coping with his WWII past and his unaging, super-soldier self of today. On one of his daily training runs, Cap runs into fellow former paramilitary trooper Sam Wilson (albeit from one of the Iraq wars) who works at the V.A. counseling soldiers suffering from PTSD and other war associated injuries. Wilson extends the hand of friendship should Cap ever have the need to talk or just be around other soldiers, themselves a bit different or feeling like a fish out of water.

Doesn't take long before Cap is thrown into a hotbed of activity involving the rescue of hostages on a ship. But this isn't a simple rescue as twists, turns and cover-ups abound from the moment Cap, Black Widow and the strike team hit the deck. On his return to Washington for debriefing, things take an even greater turn as a string of unknowns not only now threaten Cap's own coalescence with the world, but raise serious questions about Nick Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D. and above all, Alexander Pierce and the World Security Council. Who do you believe? Who do you trust? As the protective force of S.H.I.E.L.D. begins to unravel, and Cap becomes the target of what seems to be everyone, a new player enters the arena; another super soldier known as The Winter Soldier, and he's not on Cap's team.

Joining forces with Black Widow, it's up to Cap and Widow to find the truth of what's happening and what's at stake. But they're gonna need some help. And that help comes from Cap's new friend, Sam Wilson, who has a few secrets of his own, like being specially trained by the military in aerial combat wearing a specially designed wing pack, making him indispensable to Cap and Widow in his combat alter-ego, The Falcon.

Chris Evans slips back into the Captain America suit with a comfortable ease (although when it comes to the physical suit, Evans retorts, "It always feels like it gets tighter. . . They always make improvements on it and this type of thing, once you get a good sweat going, it loosens up quite a bit.) With Captain America taking emotional leaps and bounds not only in adjusting to the 21st Century, but with a crisis of conscience involving trust and loyalty and love of country, Evans keeps the character rooted with emotional conviction in the truth. Refreshingly honest and solid. And thanks to expanded story and character situations, Evans gets more screen time with Scarlet Johansson's Black Widow, giving us a chance to see the electricity and charismatic playfulness between the two giving each actor a chance to show off some slickly sarcastic comedic skills.

When it comes to Johansson, some of the greatest performance and character growth is seen with her. As the backstory of Widow's alter ego Natasha Romanoff weighs heavier with Widow - in a fashion similar to Cap, coming to grips with past merging with present, Johansson uses facial expressiveness to speak volumes as to the internal dilemma of the character's struggle. According to Johansson, "I have the good fortune of playing a character that's sort of evolving with each kind of installment that you see her in. . . I have to understand who this character is and where she comes from and have this sort of rich back story. I think the exciting thing is just scraping away at a little part of that each time to reveal kind of a small part of the bigger picture of her, and it's a very complex character."

Returning as Nick Fury, is Samuel L. Jackson (who else but!) who is hard core command as Nick Fury. When Jackson is on screen it feels as if time stands still. He commands the screen. He demands your attention.

New to the Marvel world is Anthony Mackie. A scene-stealer as Sam Wilson aka The Falcon, Mackie is a joy. A perfect wingman to Cap, Falcon is now as integral to not only this story but to the Marvel world as any Avenger. His chemistry with Evans resonates with honesty and comaraderie. Mackie is perfection providing grounding and tacit lessons in loyalty and friendship. Plus, he cuts a mean figure doing his own wire work, swooping 70 feet down on silver metallic wings.

But then bring on Robert Redford. With a gravitas all his own, Redford is stupendous. An oil-slick of a guy as Alexander Pierce, this is a Redford we have never seen. And I have to say, kudos to writers Markus and McFeeley who draft some dialogue for Redford that gives a little nod to his character as an investigative journalist in "Up Close and Personal" where Bogota, Columbia serves as a pivotal point in that story. Here, as Alexander Pierce, one of his key backstories involves Bogota, issues of trust and eventual disaster.

Also new to the franchise is Sebastian Stan debuting as The Winter Soldier. Dark, mysterious and silent for 99% of his screen time, Stan approached the character very pragmatically, embracing the complexity of the role "because the Winter Soldier's truth is very direct and he follows on this very specific trajectory path which is pretty much automatic, receiving orders, carrying them out and you don't stop at anything until you achieve your goal." Given that there is a Winter Soldier history, Stan's goal each day was "trying to kind of walk away from it having left some type of mix of the new with some of the old aspects that you would sort of remember." He succeeds brilliantly.

Not to be missed are Frank Grillo and Emily Van Camp. As Brock Rumlow, Frank Grillo is the embodiment of a Navy SEAL, providing the muscle for missions and often working side-by-side with Cap. But it's the emotional temperament that gives the action-packed Grillo a chance to shine. Emily Van Camp flies into the Marvel universe as Agent 13, an undercover martial arts and weapons expert at S.H.I.E.L.D. charged with protecting Steve Rogers without him getting wind of being guarded by "a girl." Van Camp's character is pivotal in the storyline, allowing Van Camp to exhibit command and a defiant yet unyielding moral compass.

Loosely adapted by a 2005 storyline in the Captain America comics which showcased the Winter Soldier, it was always the dream of Marvel mastermind Kevin to bring the Winter Soldier to the big screen. Drawing on the source material, which Joss Whedon has referred to as "the Marvel Cinematic Universe", the result is not a direct interpretation of that but rather, a form of borrowing; "borrowing tone and it's borrowing characters and it's borrowing themes, but that was the strongest source material for this movie." Thanks to screenwwriters Markus and McFeeley, comic book history is essentially rewritten as they delve into the past to recreate a character that is essentially the antithesis of Steve Rogers/Captain America. It is this script, this story, that sets CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER apart, elevating it above all other Marvel movies. The story is superlative. A powerful tale of morality in the war of freedom and truth. As we so succinctly see, in large part due to Redford's character and his backstory and agenda, freedom doesn't necessarily equate to truth. And while Captain America has long been about fighting for freedom, the story is so well crafted as to encompass the global platform of the 21st century where the issue is not only about fighting for or preserving our freedom, but fighting for the truth.

The story is intelligent, well crafted and constructed, well posited to provide perspective and thought long after the movie house lights dim. New characters are distinctive, speaking to levels of morality and conscience, each an integral player to the house of cards. While the visuals engage one with rapt attention, you can't help but listen and absorb the moral issues in play. This should provide a wonderful influence on kids who see the film. I applaud Chris Markus and Stephen McFeeley on a script well done. But, not only is there great subtext and message of story, the twists and turns that feed into the moral compass of deception and trust draw you ever deeper into the unfolding intrigue. This is truly the most exemplary script of any of the Marvel films to date.

Also new to the Marvel world are directors and brothers, Anthony and Joe Russo. Believing in the use of practical stunts, practical effects and judicious use of CGI, they find the sweet spot of new order technology with old world values. Immersing the audience "in the moment", hand-held cameras capture every punch, every kick, every flinch and every tear. Key to the brothers was also wanting to stay true to the script and "make [the film] reflective of our real world condition and our real world stakes even though it's a fantasy expression of what that is."

Viewing CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER as a melded "political thriller" and "espionage film", the Russos were keenly aware that with Marvel and Captain America, there is "an incredible infrastructure, very talented, very intelligent people, who are there to help you get your vision across." Part of that vision here was finding the balance of character and action, with some comedic moments integrated throughout for balance as opposed to the full on comedic stylings the Russos are known for in television. "We always say comedy isn't very different from action. It requires choreography. So when you're doing like a good comedic bit, it's all about the choreography and the timing of it, which isn't very different than stunt work or, you know, a fight in a movie. It's all a dance."

Safe to say, Disney needs to start to Oscar campaigns for technical achievement nominations now. As exemplary as the story and the performances are, and as grounded in practical effects and stunts as the film is, the visual effects that are in play are absolutely in scope and story. And huge thanks and applause to the sound design team. So often with these explosive films, we lose hearing dialogue in favor of soaring scoring musical crescendos and explosions. In CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, not a word of dialogue is sacrificed to action or mood. I'd be pushing sound design for Oscar as well as VFX.

Editing is exemplary. Sharp, clean, fast and furious, fueling the adrenalin of the film and the audience, building tension, keeping you on the edge of your seat and never sacrificing story or character in favor of action. Here again, Oscar is calling. The entire film is a technical delight.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER - stronger, higher, faster. The best of the best. The best super hero movie ever.

Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley

Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Robert Redford

 

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