Friday, July 22, 2011

Captain America: Gung-ho glory

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, and perhaps too harshly, for sci-fi violence and action
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.22.11

We're in good hands with this fellow.

And I don't mean Captain America, although he also has our backs. I'm referring to director Joe Johnston, who has the perfect touch for this sort of material: precisely the proper blend of dramatic heft, low-key humor and well-choreographed action scenes.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, center), having seized an opportunity to lead a
rescue mission deemed impossible by his superior officer, discovers that his
silly, USO-show costume might serve an important symbolic purpose after all.

Johnston understands the balance necessary for us to buy into fantasy, and he also sets a mean period stage; we always feel part of whatever era and locale his projects exploit. And he clearly has a fondness for retro superhero sagas, having delivered an impressively authentic and entertaining — and sadly undervalued — adaptation of The Rocketeer, back in 1991.

But Johnston is equally at home with the fully grounded and more gently emotional requirements of an intimate character drama such as 1999's October Sky, or the all-stops-out roller coaster ride found in 2001's Jurassic Park 3. The latter may have been formulaic and a shadow of its predecessors, but somebody had to step into Steven Spielberg's shoes ... and, to his credit, Johnston made sure his continuation wasn't a pale shadow.

And since I'm waxing poetic about Johnston's earlier accomplishments, let me also praise 2004's thoroughly engrossing horse-racing saga, Hidalgo ... which also never found its audience. Some directors just can't catch a break.

But Johnston certainly snatched the gold ring this time. Armed with a pitch-perfect script — Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, take a bow — and a skilled ensemble cast, Johnston has delivered a well-told fantasy saga that feels as innocently high-spirited and pridefully patriotic as America itself, during the turbulent days of World War II.

At the same time, Johnston fulfills the genre requirements expected by the Marvel Comics geeks who always sharpen their blogging knives, in anticipation of disrespectful or otherwise inferior big-screen adaptations. Markus and McFeely know their stuff, and they've managed the quite impressive task of nailing this patriotic symbol of two eras. Bear in mind that Cap, although still a stalwart of contemporary comics fiction, emerged as a red, white and blue avenger in the 1940s ... and yet hasn't aged.

Ah, therein lies a tale...

Which I'll not spoil.

Following a suitably intriguing prologue, we meet scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans): the epitome of a 98-pound Brooklyn weakling, but no less determined to sign up for his chance to help end Hitler's Nazi reign. But no recruiting office wants an undersize mutt who also suffers from asthma and a dozen other physical issues, and Steve should know; he has tried every "Uncle Sam wants you" station within easy travel, using a variety of aliases.

Best friend James "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan), already sporting a uniform and poised to ship out, gently insists that Steve should accept the inevitable. But that isn't about to happen, and Steve's dogged persistence catches the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a scientist who fled Germany after seeing the writing on the wall, and who has brought his rather unorthodox research to the States.

Erskine likes Steve's pluck, but is drawn more to the young man's courage, integrity and kindness. The downtrodden and bullied, Erskine explains, understand the need for compassion, even when engaged in conflict. This makes such a man a much better candidate for ... well, for the sort of laboratory-conceived transformation that has delighted Hollywood all the way back to Victor Frankenstein's lightning-enhanced skills at resurrection.

Or, if you prefer, the more recent experiments that turned Hugh Jackman's Logan into Wolverine.

Production designer Rick Heinrichs has a field day with these lab gizmos, and he's equally adept at reviving 1940s-era New York; the result feels like a film that might have been made 65 years ago (albeit with our modern Tinseltown tech). That's also Johnston's touch, of course; he carefully ensures — for the most part — that his cast and characters don't sound or look like refugees from the 21st century.

Anyway, Steve winds up in a clandestine military unit run by Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, always welcome) and his British assistant, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell, perhaps remembered from 2008's big-screen Brideshead Revisited). Erskine's procedure is successful, but at a dire cost; despite the best efforts of genius inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), and thanks to the untimely intervention of a Nazi infiltrator, the lab is wrecked beyond repair. Rather than being the first of a new breed of super-soldier, Steve winds up the only one of his kind.

And yes, by way of sidebar, that's Howard Stark, as in father of Tony Stark, later to become Iron Man; the characters in the Marvel Comics universe cross-pollinate like crazy. And to be more precise, the infiltrator actually is an agent of Hydra, an elite nasty-ops unit within Hitler's Third Reich, run by the megalomaniacal Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) ... soon to be known by a much more fearsome nickname.

Sadly regarding Steve as little more than a publicity stunt, Col. Phillips assigns him to build morale at war bonds shows. This seems a bit daft, although Jones pulls off the expository dialogue necessary to sell this brief detour. Actually, Jones could sell ice to Eskimos; his dry, mordant line delivery has been perfect ever since his Academy Award-winning supporting role in 1993's The Fugitive. And he gets the best lines here, as well: most particularly one involving who to kiss ... and when.

But this long and circuitous road to Steve's emergence as an action-ready symbol of American fortitude isn't merely a delaying tactic; the well-scripted delay serves an important purpose. Numerous interpersonal character dynamics get established: Steve and Peggy, Peggy and Col. Phillips, Steve and Col. Phillips, and so forth. We come to care about these folks, and to a surprisingly strong degree.

Pretty much the same way 1940s-era Captain America comic books lit a similarly patriotic fire within the hearts of readers young and old (and I smiled when Johnston included just such a scene ... with authentic comic book covers, of course).

As a result, when Steve finally jumps at an excuse to wear his embarrassing bond-rally uniform in actual combat ... well, it's hard not to cheer. And to wish we had a few such inspirational figures in Afghanistan, right about now.

Evans, a quietly persuasive actor in desperate need of material better than the limp dreck with which he has been associated until now — disposable junk such as Street Kings or Push, and the inappropriately jokey Fantastic Four entries — definitely rises to this occasion. He's wholly believable as a man whose integrity is several sizes too large for his initially gaunt physique, and he also sells the subsequent what-has-happened-to-me transformation.

That latter scene has become obligatory in super-hero films: the dazed confusion followed by unholy glee and then grim resolve. Ryan Reynolds oversold the unholy glee, in the recent Green Lantern. Evans much better handles the balance; he remains more human, less a cartoon character.

Most crucially, Evans also projects the essential wholesome, heartfelt moral conviction. This is no trivial matter, and he cannot be praised enough; few actors have been able to match the ingenuous honor that Christopher Reeve brought to Superman, back in the day; it ain't easy to speak of "truth, justice and the American way" without drawing snickers, particularly in these cynical times. But Evans nails it.

Let it also be said that CGI magic has become pretty darn awesome. Evans starts off as a convincingly skinny squirt before bulking up into a hunk whose chest cannot help tempting a reflexive gesture from Atwell's Peggy Carter: one of this film's numerous delightful little bits.

Weaving, a fan favorite ever since the Matrix trilogy, is marvelously malevolent as the gleefully insane — but no less ferociously scary — Schmidt. Tucci once again displays his subtle acting chops as Erskine; his late-night chat with Steve, prior to the next day's big experiment, is unexpectedly poignant and powerful.

It's the sort of scene we'd never see in one of Michael Bay's brain-dead Transformers flicks ... and, therefore, the sort of scene that makes Captain America a much better movie.

Atwell is appropriately spunky as Carter, and she spars well with Evans; they get a lot of mileage out of the word "fondue." Cooper does a deft, low-key riff on Howard Hughes, and Toby Jones is properly ferrety as Schmidt's own genius scientist, Dr. Zola.

And longtime Marvel Comics fans will cheer the third-act arrival of Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough), Gabe Jones (Derek Luke) and the rest of the "Howlin' Commandos" ... which means their leader can't be far behind. About whom I'll say no more.

I figured we got lucky, during this summer of superheroes, when Thor was delivered with such panache. Well, Captain America is every bit that film's equal: engaging, well acted, credibly staged and lots of fun.

Marvel Comics guru Stan Lee — and yes, he pops up briefly, as he always does — couldn't ask for more. Neither can we.

No comments: