Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Movie Review: Captain America: Winter Soldier

Genre: Superhero
Director: Anthony and Joe Russo
Rating: *** (3 out of 5)

Before they were brought together in the 2012 ensemble film, the Avengers had been busy with their solo acts. Though not all superheroes are created equal, and some characters have proven to be more bankable than others. Iron Man has set a high bar in both box office sales and critical reviews, which means the rest of the pack must raise their game or risk falling by the wayside (no offense, Hawkeye). For the rather humorless Captain America, it means pairing up with Black Widow to sell more seats. 

Captain America 2 by the Russo Brothers

Director Joe Johnston, who did a fine job with the first Cap Am movie in 2011, has been replaced by the Russo Brothers best known for their Emmy-winning sitcom Arrested Development. During test screenings of Winter Soldier, Marvel executives were so impressed with the US$170 million sequel that the studio immediately signed the brothers up for a third film.

And it’s not hard to understand why. The Russos have given Marvel – and diehard fanboys – exactly what they wanted. Winter Soldier is an action-packed rollercoaster ride with back-to-back car chases and gunfights, complete with a super villain sporting a ski mask that recalls Bane’s tarantula mouthpiece in Batman: The Dark Knight Rises. What’s more, the story line capitalizes on the post-9/11 tension between national security and civil rights, a theme that is certain to resonate with the American public. 

Another masked villain

To less devoted viewers, the sequel is mediocre at best. The storyline is predictable and straight off the template. Senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (played by Robert Redford) hatches an evil plan to kill millions of potential terrorists with world-ending weaponry, based on a dubious computer program that predicts criminal behavior. To make that happen, Pierce takes out his deputy Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and goes after every superhero agent who stands in his way. We don’t know what happens to Iron Man and the rest of the Avengers – they are nowhere in sight even in a time of great crisis. What we do know is that Captain America and Black Widow have gone rogue to foil Pierce’s mass murdering scheme. Epic battles ensue, and the captain saves the day. It’s all pretty standard action hero stuff. There isn’t a single surprise during two hours of formulaic schlock.

Chris Evans delivers what is expected of him, playing a patriotic soldier with a vibranium shield and an even stronger moral compass. Constrained by the straight-laced character he plays, Evans is easily upstaged by girl-next-door Scarlett Johansen, who has a knack for lighting up the screen whenever she appears on it. Nevertheless, the Black Widow we see in Winter Soldier is not nearly as cunning and manipulative as the one in The Avengers. It is a letdown for Black Widow fans, as the character’s biggest asset has always been her brains and not her brawn. Robert Redford is an unlikely yet welcome casting choice for the villainous mastermind. He lends an air of credibility to the otherwise uninteresting role and, for a few fleeting moments, turns the film into a 3D remake of All the President’s Men.

My favorite Avenger after Iron Man

It is worth noting that Winter Soldier features some of the genre's best fight scenes in recent memory. The opening sequence that puts Captain America in hand-to-hand combat with  pirates aboard a hijacked vessel marks the high point of the entire film. The thrilling set piece has Yuen Wo Ping’s fingerprints all over it. It goes to show that martial arts choreography is, and will continue to be, Hong Kong’s greatest contribution to Hollywood and one of the city's proudest cultural exports.

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