I'm doing a movie review today, but I'd like to also point out Norma's review of this one for your consideration. Now then, shall we get to it?
"Can anyone direct me to the Smithsonian? I'm looking for an old fossil." ~ Natasha Romanoff
"This isn't freedom. This is fear." ~ Steve Rogers
"This is the age of miracles... and there's nothing more horrible than a miracle." ~ Baron Wolfgang von Strucker
The Sentinel of Liberty returns in a current day sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger in a film that wrestles with the question: is security worth the cost to freedom? The question looms large over a film that plays more like a political thriller than a superhero adaptation. Captain America: The Winter Soldier owes much to the work of comics writer Ed Brubaker, who in the last few years established arguably the definitive run on the character and the world he inhabits, by daring to do what was unthinkable and bring back a character long thought dead- and succeeding wildly. The film itself deals with themes like power, responsibility, and the infiltration and corruption of an agency meant to do good but turned on itself.
The film opens in a quiet way with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) meeting Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a meeting that quickly establishes a rapport between them that'll pay off later. He joins his fellow Avenger Natasha Romanoff, aka the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), in a S.H.I.E.L.D. operation to rescue agents being held hostage in the Indian Ocean, and out of that mission, he finds himself asking troubling questions about his purpose. Coming from a past where the difference between right and wrong was very clear, Steve finds himself in a present day where the lines are not so clear.
Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and S.H.I.E.L.D. are working on a new generation of helicarriers with new capabilities, including taking out threats before they become a problem. Steve is disturbed by the notion of preemptive strikes, Fury argues that his agency must work with the world as it is instead of an ideal world. We meet an old friend of Fury, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), a political leader, member of the council overseeing the agency, and one of the founders of S.H.I.E.L.D. And into the mix of all of this comes a violent force of nature and a mystery man, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). He's a relentless masked assassin with a robotic arm, extraordinary resilience, and a skill for killing people. Soon Cap finds himself on the run, marked as a fugitive by his own people, uncertain who to trust.
The film is directed by two brothers, Anthony and Joe Russo, who have a background mostly in television comedy. This comes across as a surprise, because you wouldn't know that in how skillfully they orchestrate action sequences. They employ the sort of touches you might expect in one of the Jason Bourne films, both in terms of fight sequences and chase sequences. They also keep the story moving along at a brisk pace, driving up the tension along the way. We can keep track of what's going on while it's going on- a vital element in a film like this. The directors and their camera and editing crews give us just the right amount of distance in an action sequence that we don't get lost. At the same time, they know when to give the audience a breather.
The story comes to us from screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. A look at their credits reveals much; they already have experience in the Marvel cinematic universe, with the previous The First Avenger, as well as the recent Thor: The Dark World. In addition, however, they also took part in writing the screenplays for the three Chronicles of Narnia films of recent years. The story they tell here is a conspiracy tale, of an agency corrupted from within by an old enemy. It's true to the history of Captain America in the comics too; there have been occasions when the character has been disillusioned by the direction of his government, exiled from America, or turned into persona non grata. Those qualities are on display in the story, which is dark and troubling at times. They deal with the struggle between security and order on the one hand, and the price to liberty on the other. I found myself thinking at times that a certain former Vice President (coughDickCheneycough) would look at the rationale behind the dark plans of the antagonists the writers give us, and say, "you know, that would have been a great idea."
They strongly emphasize character, and use dialogue to reinforce that. This is best shown in the dynamics between Cap, the Widow, and Sam Wilson, who steps into action as the Falcon. There is respect between all three, a fundamental trust. It's there right off the bat with Sam for Steve, but with Natasha, it's a bit harder to come by; she's more pragmatic about the sort of things that need to be done, even if that's a gray area. The trio have good banter with each other, and that starts off with the writers. Even in small details, the writers pepper the story with revealing moments. There are nods to other elements of the Marvel cinematic universe, such as verbal or visual mentions of Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Thor, Hawkeye- and one yet to come in a blink and you'll miss hearing it name, not to mention two other coming attractions, so to speak.
The film was shot both on stage and on location in Cleveland and in Washington. The crew outdid themselves in their work, including rigging complicated and intricate action sequences, as well as the required special effects, only used sparingly and when needed. The world of S.H.I.E.L.D. is explored more in depth, including their headquarters, which looks ultramodern and has secrets of its own. Even more effective, strangely, is a throwback bunker with old, old technology and a hidden, malevolent presence, rendered well by the crew. Aside from the previously established characters, two new characters owe a good deal to the costuming and technical side of things. The Winter Soldier's look is very much based on the comics design, and the costuming team render it well in how they made the actor look. The Falcon's somewhat different from the comics counterpart; his flight suit is more tech-armour than what the comics version is, but it works wonderfully, and feels quite real world as he soars through the air and into battle. The designers did terrific work in how they worked out the Falcon's look.
The cast suits the film ideally, and I'll start with smaller roles. Georges St. Pierre is one of those mixed martial arts types- I don't understand the appeal of that sport- and is cast in a cameo role as Batroc, a mercenary who appears early on leading the hostage taking. The character has a long history as an adversary to Cap, and it was a nice touch to have him in the film, with the potential to bring him back in the future. Even without the mask and costume of the comics version- which probably wouldn't work in film- the essence of the character comes across on screen. St. Pierre has merely to play him as the supremely dangerous fighter through his time on screen. Another actor who plays an adversary is Frank Grillo. When we first meet him, he's an agent, but his true loyalties will soon be revealed, and for a comics reader, hearing his mere name is enough to mark him as a villain. His character manages to carry on through the film, and he plays the role with a tenacity and ruthlessness- suiting the man as he should be. There's a brief cameo appearance in the credits- stay for both scenes by the way- by the great character actor Thomas Kretschmann, playing the villainous Baron von Strucker, a formidable adversary with a lot of bad history with Cap. In just a minute's time, Kretschmann conveys the arrogance and menace of an utterly ruthless and sadistic man. Emily VanCamp turns up here and there as a neighbour of Steve, actually an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. named Sharon, another character comics fans will know well. And there's a cameo from the first film in the form of Hayley Atwell, who played Peggy Carter, Steve's love interest. We see her both young and old, and the conversation between the two characters has heartbreaking poignancy.
There's another holdover from the first film, though he doesn't look like we last saw him. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), the HYDRA scientist, has cheated death in a manner of speaking, and we hear the voice and feel his presence. His new form of existence is one that comes across as bone chilling as the audience begins to understand his capabilities. And from The Avengers, Cobie Smulders reprises her role as agent Maria Hill, one of the few people Nick Fury knows he can trust. She gets a good deal to do this time out, particularly as the film heads towards a climax. She plays the role as a woman who's professional and dedicated to her work... with just a hint of a sense of humour.
The main characters inhabit their roles as we can expect them. Redford might well have been perfect for the lead role in his youth. Here he must play a complicated role, with a poker face at first. It's a character with history and hidden depth, and his own driving forces; beyond that, I can say nothing other than he plays the part well, and is compelling to watch. Jackson gets a great deal to do this time out, perhaps even more so than in The Avengers. He struggles with the ethical consequences of his actions versus the responsibilities to society. He comes across as highly resourceful on more than one occasion- particularly when he personally comes under attack by gunmen posing as police officers. And there's a profound grumpiness to the character that fits who Fury is. The antagonist- if you want to call him that- carries some surprises with him. Sebastian Stan plays the tragic Winter Soldier, a man of great skills and few words. We've seen him before, of course, but he's much changed since last he appeared in the Marvel cinematic universe. Through much of the film, there's a profound relentlessness to the character, the sort of fellow who, in short, is a very dangerous man. But as the audience starts to learn more about him, we see he's been used and abused in the worst of ways, brainwashed into a killing machine. He earns our empathy and compassion, and Stan conveys that sense of tragedy in the film's final act.
The three lead protagonists play their roles very well indeed. Anthony Mackie's appeared in other work that I've liked, including The Adjustment Bureau and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. We get to like him pretty much right off the bat as Sam Wilson in how he relates to Cap, and the writers wisely keep us from knowing that he already has experience in flight from his military days with a flight suit that's rather unusual. It's a different take on the character from the comics, but Mackie gets Sam's personality just right. He's courageous, loyal, and daring, and the directors chose well in casting him. The film could have easily been called Captain America & The Black Widow, because Evans and Johansson are together through most of the film. Johansson plays Natasha as the thoroughly dangerous woman she is, and this is her third go at the character. She's pragmatic enough to know that some things have to be done for the greater good, and has elements of her past she'd prefer to keep buried, and yet is willing to turn rogue because it's the right thing to do. Johansson gives the character the ingenuity, intelligence, and ability to improvise that we'd expect from her, and there's strength in her performance- as well as a dash of humour. This is also Evan's third time in his role, and he's the bedrock of the film. His Captain America is a man out of time, trying to get used to the modern world. He's also a man of fierce principle and integrity, not knowing who to trust in a world that's gone morally gray. Beyond that, however, is a man who's a natural leader, decisive and determined. And on top of that is the sort of guy whose sense of personal decency allows him to feel empathy for a friend turned enemy.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier turns the entire Marvel cinematic universe upside down. It's a gritty political action thriller and conspiracy film that deals with betrayal and the clash of security versus liberty. The film is a rousing, dark one, and a splendid addition to the franchise.