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Stylish 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' brings moral complexity to Marvel

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Let’s face it… Captain America isn’t the most exciting member of the four Avengers (I’m going to pretend Hawkeye and Black Widow don’t exist). He isn’t as flashy and funny as Iron Man, broody and conflicted as the Hulk or even as courtly and flamboyant as Thor. With his pious Boy Scout routine and flag-waving, all-American set of values, he was always going to be a black and white caricature in a 21st century world. He was a product of his time, which is why it made perfect sense that his first cinematic adventure, "Captain America: The First Avenger," be set in the golden era of propaganda.

Yet, it’s this very “man out of time” element—this status as an outsider—that enables him to provide an outsider’s perspective on the dicey war-on-terror world we live in. It’s what eventually makes him the most relatable of the Marvel heroes, and in turn, a threat to the forces in power in the world he resides. It’s also what makes "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" one of the most accomplished films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (henceforth referred to as MCU).

Many of my colleagues have been smart to compare "The Winter Soldier" with numerous conspiracy thrillers of the ‘70s—in particular Alan J. Packula’s paranoia-brimmed "The Parallax View" and Sydney Pollack’s taut "Three Days of the Condor," whose star Robert Redford also plays a major role in this film. As much as it owes to those movies, this sequel is stylistically—in its mood, pace and staging—very much a 21st century beast. Its DNA includes the Tom Clancy thrillers of the ‘90s, "The Manchurian Candidate," Bryan De Palma’s "Mission: Impossible," and the "Bourne" trilogy.

Directed with gusto by the Russo brothers, and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley, this sequel is grittier, leaner, and smarter than its predecessor. Set mostly in and around Washington D.C., post "Avengers," and possibly around the same time as the events of "Iron Man 3" and "Thor: The Dark World" (which would explain why none offer each other a helping hand), The Winter Soldier finds Captain America a.k.a. Steve Rogers (an excellent Chris Evans) working mostly as an errand boy for S.H.I.E.L.D. But as evidenced in that 2012 mega-blockbuster, Steve isn’t exactly naïve to the shadiness of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, suitably cheeky) and his associates, including Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and new government head Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford).

Although Rogers convincingly dispatches bad guys as told, he finds himself increasingly at odds with his superiors with every ensuing mission. When he questions Fury after realizing a hijacking rescue mission was merely a cover for stealing intelligence data, he is ordered to “get with the program.” But when the assassination of a major character at the hands of the mysterious Winter Soldier leaves the organization in disarray, Steve, Black Widow and military vet Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) find themselves fugitives—and on the run to find the answers to a conspiracy whose roots were planted long before the events of the film are set in motion.

What’s so surprising, even invigorating, about "The Winter Soldier"—at least in comparison to the rest of the films in the Marvel oeuvre—is that for the first time there seems to be an conscious effort to draw a line between the MCU and contemporary real-world issues. This is an uncommon superhero film that depicts good and evil as interchangeable entities, where not even the Disney-stamped Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can be trusted. Who better then to have on our side than Captain America, the most trustworthy of heroes? Topics like the nature of modern intelligence, government surveillance tactics in the name of national security, and patriotism are more at home in the Chris Nolan "Batman" universe. Yet this is the film where characters dish lines like “This isn’t freedom, this is fear!” The times they are a-changin!

Lest you confuse "The Winter Soldier" for a political drama, you’ll be reminded earlier on that this is indeed a Marvel flick through and through. The action and one-on-one fight sequences, a staple of the series, are shot with the grit and urgency of the "Bourne" movies; they are stylish (but not distractingly so); rapidly cut (but coherent), and even shocking for their heightened violence. Nevertheless, these sequences are in keeping with the unhinged mood of the film. Two visceral car chase sequences, which feature automatic rifle-spawned bullets piercing car metal as if it were tin foil, call to mind Michael Mann’s "Heat." A standout hand-to-hand fight in an elevator invokes the creativity and wit of last year’s "The Raid," albeit within a family-friendly, studio-produced environment. I know my description sounds watered down, but this sequence really demonstrates the Russo brothers’ comprehension of spatial dimensions and framing in closed spaces. In laymen’s terms, it’s intense and spectacular fun, not to mention, thematically relevant too.

Where "The Winter Soldier" stumbles is in its characterization of the titular Winter Soldier. Although he’s a formidable foe for Steve Rogers, and the actor whose name I shall not reveal, gives an effectively brooding and acrobatic performance, the script sells the character short. We’re not given enough information about him, his back-story, or his place in the grand scheme of the plot—aside from the fact that he’s a perfectly calibrated assassin. It’s the only aspect of this movie that feels ill conceived, which is a disappointment. Equally disappointing is the finale, where it becomes just another conventional superhero movie, beset with giant set-pieces, mega-explosions, and Marvel’s frustrating risk-averseness with their characters. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" may not be a game-changer. I seriously doubt any Marvel film has the creative capacity for that. But unlike "Thor: The Dark World," which left me fatigued with its slavish devotion to superhero film formula, this well-acted film is shot with the verve and conviction of a political thriller. The result is exhilarating.

PS. As if you needed to be given a heads-up about this, there are two post-credit stingers. The first appears right after the film’s stunning black, white and red end credits sequence while the second appears at the very end of the credits. The first is important, the second, not so much.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

Running time: 136 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Producer: Kevin Feige
Principal Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford
Editor: Jeffrey Ford
Cinematography: Trent Opaloch
Score: Henry Jackman

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" opens in South Florida theaters on Friday, April 4.

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