Sunday, July 31, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger / ***½ (PG-13)

Steve Rogers/Captain America: Chris Evans
Peggy Carter: Hayley Atwell
Colonel Chester Phillips: Tommy Lee Jones
Johann Schmidt/Red Skull: Hugo Weaving
Howard Stark: Dominic Cooper
James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes: Sebastian Stan
Dr. Arnim Zola: Toby Jones
Dr. Abraham Erskine: Stanley Tucci

Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment present a film directed by Joe Johnston. Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely. Based on the comic books by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Running time: 125 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action).

After the cacophony of images, noises, and explosions of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is a bold reassurance that there are still filmmakers out there who know how to make a good entertaining action fantasy. Joe Johnston’s “Captain America” is a return to what’s great in summer movies. It has the explosions, but it doesn’t depend upon them.

Heralding from the Spielberg school of filmmaking, Johnston has made a stylish, witty, thrilling comic book hero movie that wears the influence of Spielberg’s own Indiana Jones on its sleeve. It even throws in a quick jab at his mentor’s popular film series for one of this movie’s great referential laughs. But, what Johnston really gets right is the development of the characters. Instead of typical straight to action tactics, Johnston (“Jurassic Park III”) and his screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the team behind “The Chronicles of Narnia” movies), give the characters their due. Through many scenes of dialogue, they establish both sides of the playing field and paint a solid picture of the hero, Steve Rogers, and how he becomes Captain America.

We meet the spindly little weakling, Rogers, played, with the help of a lot of CGI, by Chris Evans (“The Losers”). It’s 1942 and Rogers is determined to do his duty for the war effort. He’s not satisfied working in a factory, despite continued rejections from the war department because of his poor health qualifications. His best friend, “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Shaw, “Hot Tub Time Machine”), is about to be shipped to the European Theater and Rogers makes a last ditch effort to make the cut. He’s singled out by a scientist (Stanley Tucci, “The Devil Wears Prada”) for a special program headed by Colonel Chester Phillips, a typically hard talking Tommy Lee Jones (“No Country for Old Men”). The scientist has developed a serum to produce a super soldier and Rogers will be the test subject.

All of this is preposterous, yet Johnston sells it with stylish recreation of a 40s era wartime atmosphere, including newsreels. The set decoration by John Bush (“Vera Drake”) is impeccable. After his transformation, Rogers engages in a footrace against a New York City Yellow Cab that evokes the thrill of 1940s swashbucklers. We are also given the first great female love interest in a comic book movie with Hayley Atwell (“The Duchess”) as British Agent, Peggy Carter. Carter is a classic woman, not some supermodel stick figure. She’s bucksome and bodacious, and the filmmakers don’t let the pitter-pats of the hero’s heart get in the way of the story.

The filmmakers put just as much effort into the movie’s villain, the uber-Nazi Johann Schmidt, played by Hugo Weaving (“The Matrix”), in full teeth-gnashing mode. Despite his near cartoonish nature, the screenwriters wisely ground their villain with a nervy sidekick, Dr. Arnim Zola, played with wonder and amazement by Toby Jones (“W.”). Weaving’s expert German accent adds the right amount of reality to his over-the-top portrayal of the Nazi-est Nazi of them all.

Schmidt commands his own elite division of the Reich, the scientific development division known as Hydra. Oddly, only he and Zola seem to be involved in the development of anything, while the rest of Hydra falls into the expendable henchman category. While Cap has been relegated to publicity work for the war effort because he was the only super soldier produced from the program, Hydra captures Bucky’s division, the 107th. Cap goes AWOL to rescue his fellow grunts, and the Army realizes that one super soldier is better than none. We meet the Howling Commandos, led by Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough, “Flags of Our Fathers”); a special military team that finds it’s way into many of the Marvel Universe storylines.

 “Captain America: The First Avenger” successfully introduces a superhero who, in the past, has come across as too much of a boyscout for some fans to take seriously. The movie is an incredible throwback to a time when filmmaking wasn’t filled with cuts and edits, but also included dialogue and plotting. It also resurrects many of the values of the time period it depicts. The filmmakers wisely don’t cling to this atmosphere they’ve so wonderfully reproduced here, however; they’re willing to sacrifice the foundational elements they’ve used to establish the character for his future as a player in the entire Marvel universe of movies, clearing the way for next summer’s superhero team film “The Avengers”. If you stay on through the credits, you’ll also get a little sneak peek at that movie. 

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