What sets Captain America apart from some of the other costumed guys who have worn out their welcome at cinemas has always been his earnest reasons for donning the suit: to fight for truth, justice and the American way.
And though, technically, that is Superman's motto, it's sometimes hard to tell the difference, given the parallels between "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," and "Man of Steel." Both start off very strong - through atmosphere, moral dilemma and character - and end in anonymous mayhem. So while the Captain's latest outing suffers from the usual blockbuster excesses, it is largely successful, and perhaps the best standalone Marvel movie since the first "Iron Man."
The plot finds super-soldier Steve Rogers (the Captain himself, played by Chris Evans, serviceable) disillusioned by a secret project underway at S.H.I.E.L.D., the espionage organization for which he works. The project, called Insight, would turn the world into a surveillance state - more than it already is - in which threats to national security are eliminated before they have the chance to commit a crime.
Shown is Chris Evans as Captain America in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”
Captain America (Chris Evans, right) argues with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in a scene from “Captain America:?The Winter Soldier.”
"This isn't freedom; this is fear," Rogers says at one point to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, very good this time), his superior and leader of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"S.H.I.E.L.D. takes the world as it is, not as we'd like it to be," Fury responds, establishing the film's central conflict about the tension between freedom and security.
When Rogers retrieves classified intelligence from a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel that was hijacked, he and Fury become the targets of an organization seeking to overthrow S.H.I.E.L.D. and use Project Insight for its own ends.
The premise, like that of "Iron Man," is refreshingly topical as it poses questions about which nations deserve to hold the big guns on the world stage. Too bad that inquiry is left buried under the rubble of the film's last act, which, expectedly, satisfies the obligations of the superhero genre, and nothing else, in stark contrast to the engaging tone of the film's first half.
"The Winter Soldier" works best as a conspiracy thriller after an assassination attempt on Fury takes him out of the picture. Rogers, with no one to look to for guidance, and no one to trust, must remain alert. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo succeed in rendering his paranoia palpable through furtive glances, hushed voices and sinister silences. So if the message is lost somewhere in the debris, the filmmaking is at least deft.
For example, the many action scenes - especially the ones that feature hand-to-hand combat - manage to be both blunt and impressionistic, a rarity these days when fast cuts and jittery cameras render a lot of action incomprehensible, either because the actors aren't trained fighters or because of incompetent direction. That's not the case here.
The Russo brothers rarely lose sight of who is fighting whom and always keep the audience oriented. In one scene, the Captain is ambushed inside a tightly-packed elevator. What is more astounding than the way he dispenses with his combatants is the clarity of the choreography, which makes the small space feel like something of an arena.
Undoubtedly, the filmmakers have harnessed the limits of the Captain's abilities. Though super, he is, after all, human. He can't fly and he doesn't have an arsenal at his fingertips, nor an all-powerful, intergalactic hammer. Though he does have a pretty cool shield, he can still be killed. And when he's seriously injured, the stakes are real, distinguishing this film from Marvel's empty spectacles.
In other words, "The Winter Soldier," in certain moments, packs quite a punch. In comic speak, it's more wham-bam than whiz-bang. But don't worry, there's plenty of that too.
3 stars out of 4.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout.