Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"Captain America"

I always have and always will stand in support of the summer blockbuster. Heady dramas, witty comedies, and hard-hitting documentaries will generally be considered more significant, more meaningful, of course, and rightly so. But I believe the core of the movie industry is entertainment and no film quite embraces the idea of entertainment like a good summer blockbuster. By that logic, I very much enjoy comic book and superhero films. Excluding the rare and horrible outlier (read: “Green Lantern”), I am almost always entertained by the superhero genre and after all, that’s what I really want in July when it’s 129 degrees outside. So keep that nerdy bias toward superheroes in mind as we delve into “Captain America.”

Set during World War II, “Captain America” opens on Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) who has all the makings of a great soldier locked away inside a frail, 90 pound body. When a government scientist named Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) offers him a chance to join the fight, Rogers jumps at the chance and becomes Erskine’s guinea pig for an experimental program that would create an army of super soldiers. After successfully transforming Rogers into a muscly, athletic beast, Erskine is killed when a Nazi spy sabotages the laboratory and steals the formula. Unsure of the results, Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) turns Rogers over to a senator who uses him as a propaganda tool to sell war bonds. Feeling a new level of uselessness while on a USO trip to the front, Rogers, now known across the country as Captain America, becomes aware of Hydra, a secret Nazi organization run by Johann Schmidt/Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) who once worked with Erskine. After a daring rescue of a group of POWs that includes Bucky, Colonel Phillips sends Captain American and his team of commandos on a blitzkrieg across Europe, forcing a final confrontation with Red Skull that could determine the outcome of the war.

Coming in, I questioned whether or not Chris Evans could headline a film but that tentative uncertainty was stowed away quite early in this film’s runtime. Given what a make-or-break film this is for Evans I would have been willing to forgive some overacting as he tried to prove he belonged but there’s none of that in “Captain.” I’m not sure that Evans has the charisma of, say, Ryan Reynolds and yet he seems wholly comfortable within the role, as if it comes naturally. This version of Captain America (I know very little of the comics) is an unassuming and humble hero, the kind of guy who is willing to do incredible things because he is capable of such acts, not because he needs to do them. Evans embodies and exemplifies these personality traits well and this makes Captain America as relatable as a scientifically engineered super freak can be. Make no mistake about it, this is a career changing performance that will keep Evans away from horrifying romantic comedies (like “What’s Your Number” which he co-stars in this fall) for years to come.

His supporting cast, though, should not be overlooked. As special agent Peggy Carter who works with Colonel Phillips, Hayley Atwell is charming and strong enough on her own to make you overlook the fact that she’s a British woman who has somehow become a major player in the American military. In short, she does everything that Natalie Portman could not do in “Thor.” While her screen time is limited, this is the kind of strong female character that Hollywood desperately needs in their action movies. The inevitable romantic dynamic between Carter and Rogers is far more natural than you might expect and treads lightly upon the love interest clich├ęs that run rampant through many blockbusters. Weaving, meanwhile, is sufficiently menacing and intimidating, a worthy villain for a superhero of Captain America’s stature. And then there’s ol’ Tommy, one of the great American actors that you sometimes forget about. Christie Lemire said in her review for “Ebert Presents” that this is the kind of role Tommy Lee Jones could play in his sleep and I whole heartedly agree. There is an ease with which Jones works that creates an overwhelmingly fun and thoroughly entertaining environment and that carries over to the rest of the cast and the audience.

The action sequences in “Captain America” are slightly more subdued than what you’d find in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” but they’re no less powerful and engrossing. The script, put together by a collaborative host of writers, is lively and quite humorous in places. None of it is new, really, and much of the dialogue is easy but sometimes easy fits well and this is one of those situations. “Captain” is also a beautifully shot and colored film. Director Joe Johnston went with a sepia tint that truly works with the film’s nostalgic ideals and concepts. It’s a nice finishing touch that only adds to the overall fun of the film.

There are, of course, some flaws within “Captain America” that I can’t completely pass over. We are treated to a tired montage (similar to the ones found in “X-Men: First Class”) that needed a fresh take and a voice over sequence illustrating how Schmidt became the Red Skull that plays out like a bad horror flick. There are also a few moments in which the nostalgic wholesomeness of both the film and the leading character jump over the kitschy fence and roam freely in the Land of Cheese, all of which I could have done without. But on the whole, “Captain America” is everything you could ask for in a summer blockbuster. If you’re not a fan of superhero movies, this one isn’t going to change your mind. But being the nerdy guy that I am, I believe I’ll have to make room for it on my personal list of favorite comic book films.

Grade: A-

Can’t wait for “The Avengers”,
Brian

9 comments:

  1. Good review. I like that you don't hold back or apologize for your particular taste and point of view, yet you write a review that is balanced. I'm looking forward to "Captain America." I'm glad to have you out there on the leading edge of filmdom. It keeps my appetite whetted for the good ones, and prevents me from spending my time and money on turkeys.

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  2. The Avengers teaser very nearly made me literally pee my pants. I squealed like a little girl. I am not embellishing one little bit.

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  3. Just got back from "Captain America." It was fun, but not as good as I expected. You're right on target about Chris Evans. I thought he did a very good job. Hayley Atwell was good as well, and Stanley Tucci was very good, I thought. Weaving was just kind of over the top, which isn't surprising in a comic book movie, but could have been better. Now, the team Captain America assembled was basically terrible. They were caricatures, not characters.

    As far as plot goes, it was pretty dumb. Fun, but dumb. I don't regret seeing it, but it won't make my watch-it-again list.

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  4. @John Same here, man. Best post-credits easter egg ever!

    @Talmid I may have overrated it but I had an absolute blast. I'd definitely see it again.

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  5. Worry not. It wasn't your rating that got me to go. I enjoyed the film, and there were definitely some very good parts. You have to root for Rogers, both when he's the little guy who wants desperately to fight for his country, and when he becomes Captain America. I think the best scene in the whole movie was the one where Erskine brings the schnapps to his barracks.

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  6. Evans is unprecedentedly touching and engaging for a superhero - and the rest of the cast help this adventure seem something close to character-driven instead of just being a bundle of stunts. Good Review!

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  7. Excellent points, Dan. I'm still a little surprised at how good Evans was.

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  8. Glad you could enjoy it because I really didn't. But to be fair, I've never been a big comic book movie fan save for those particularly exceptional ones like Spider-Man, Batman, and Iron Man.

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  9. Yeah, I'm fairly easy to entertain when it comes to comic book movies. Wouldn't put this in the class of those you mentioned but I'd feel good about putting it in the second tier of comic movies.

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