Friday, August 5, 2011

Movie Review: "Captain America: The First Avenger" by David Pretty

Greetings, Wingheads!

Captain America was never my favorite super hero as a kid, but I did like him more then, say, Thor or Superman mainly because he was still mortal and vulnerable.  It's not hard to see the character's appeal through the eyes of a typically awkward teenage kid.  When noble, pure-hearted Steve Rodgers goes from scrawny loser to an Olympian uber-mensch, confident leader of men, and national hero we're really talking about the stuff of pure wish fulfillment.  

Mainly it was the character's self-righteousness nature and jingoistic Ameri-centric tub-thumping that I really didn't care for.  So when a modern, big-budgeted film version was announced, I was wondering if the producers could pull off an Iron Man.  After all, I wasn't a huge fan of that character either and the film succeeded admirably due to the charisma and talent of Robert Downey Jr.  Could Chris Evans pull off the same stunt?  He was certainly one of the better things about the abysmal 2005 Fantastic Four film but could rise to the challenge of such an iconic starring role?

Ponder his place in the Marvel Universe as you watch the film's trailer:

So, yes, Chris Evans plays Steve Rodgers a ninety-eight pound weakling who's pastime growing up was being routinely beat up by bullies on the mean streets of Brooklyn.  With Hitler's forces running roughshod all over Europe and young men lining up to enlist, Steve tries to sign up five separate times but is rejected at every turn due to his physical limitations.

His efforts are duly noted by the expatriate German scientist Abraham Erksine (Stanley Tucci) who taps him for a secret program designed to create an army of American super-soldiers.  Despite his slight stature and physical weakness, Steve distinguishes himself during training after puzzling out a flagpole challenge and displaying unquestionable bravery by hurling himself onto a dummy grenade.

Despite the skepticism of the program's commanding officer Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), Steve is green-lit for the state-approved steroid program and after some mumbo-jumbo about serums and vita-rays, he's reborn as a pre-constructed superman.  Unfortunately a Nazi assassin that has infiltrated the lab sets off a bomb and kills Erskine.  With the death of the scientist, the procedure is lost to the ages and Steve becomes the first and last of his kind.

Since he was meant to fight in a platoon of similarly powered peers, Steve isn't sent to the front.  Instead he's garbed in a red, white and blue super-hero outfit and trolled around the country to hawk war bonds.  Despite his trepidations, "Captain America" becomes a propaganda poster boy and a national hero.  This is a fantastic sequence which gives the film-makers permission to put Chris Evans in the most traditionally accurate super-hero costume ever shown on film.  It also serves as Exhibit A-Z as to why it would never work.

Meanwhile even darker forces are aligning in the enemy camp.  The deep science division of the Nazi party, H.Y.D.R.A., led by the megalomaniacal Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) is tearing up Nordic archeological sites looking for the greatest MacGuffin in the Marvel Universe: the Tesseract (A.K.A the "Cosmic Cube"). After tracking it down, Schmidt taps into it's unlimited powers to create a host of technological terrors which he plans to use against Hitler with the ultimate goal of taking over the world (natch!).

When his old pally Bucky (Sebastian Stan) is captured by Schmidt's forces, Captain America launches into action with the aid of Iron Man's pop Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and intelligence officer/British crumpet/potential love interest Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).  He manages to liberate the prisoners and finds himself face to face with Schmidt, who's own experiments with body modification have seen him reincarnated as the maniacal Red Skull.  Needless to say a final confrontation between the two is inevitable.

The first half of this film does everything right.  Director Joe Johnston is on familiar ground here, having directed The Rocketeer, one of the best films about a superhero no-one cared about.  The first half of the film is impeccably paced.  Events lead logically from one story beat to another.  Narrative threads emerge organically from what's come before it.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the second half.  It's almost as if movie had to pay the price for the deliberate pacing of the first half.  It's as if Johnston suddenly realized that he was running out of time and crashed though the rest of the story like a roll-call.  For example, despite indulging in court-marshal-worthy behavior, suddenly Cap's been promoted and is acting like General Patton.  He also suddenly develops the ability to fly a plane really, really well.  Finally, a sequence which depicts the fate of one of the minor characters seems more like a check on a continuity tic sheet versus something that evolved naturally from the story.

Despite being hamstrung by a latter half who's sole mission is to get Cap and the Red Skull together for a mandatory dust-up, there are so many great things here.  Johnston shoots large tracts of the film in real locations and goes for practical effects whenever he can.  In fact, before the second half of the film gets swamped with CGI whiz-bangery, the movie is shot almost like the first three Indiana Jones pictures.  When the Red Skull chides Hitler at one point for "digging up half the desert" looking for occult artifacts, we know that Johnston is giving a nod to the sort of pictures that Lucas and Spielberg used to make.

Indeed, by eschewing the temptation to swamp the flick with flashy digital effects in the first half, it almost feels like an olde-skool, 80's style film replete with innovation and restraint.  This gave me a reservoir of tolerance for later when things started to get slapdash and video-gamey.  All you have to do it witness the laughably cartoonish Rolls Royce vs. Flying Wing race towards the end of the film and you'll know exactly what I mean. Apparently that underground runway was about twelve times longer then the one at Denver International Airport.

The film generally looks great.  I have to praise the special effects wizards who managed to take the now-inflated Chris Evans and digitally wimpify him.  The illusion is flawless.  I also love the fact that the film is set firmly in the World War II-era.  Shooting on location in England really ramped up the authenticity and it also doubled nicely for some Forties-era New York street scenes.  When it came to doubling for the Italian countryside, however, the less said the better....

The Captain America costume is fantastic and I love that we get to see all of his looks: from goofy stage-tights to shield-bearing commando to a paratrooper-style compromise.  Along the way we also get to see three shields, culminating with the classic flying disc that Cap gets to use as creatively as he does in the comics.  I also need to praise the costume designers for coming up with some convincing outfits that were both historically accurate (the American soldiers) and speculative (the H.Y.D.R.A. troops) when need be.

Chris Evans is as good as I'd hoped for.  When you compare his performance here to that of cocky asshole Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four, you really get the sense that he gave this role considerable reverence.  His approach is thoughtful, nuanced and understated.  The scene where Erskine keeps trying to bait Steve into killing Nazis is particularly telling.  When he replies: "I don't want to kill anyone.  I just don't like bullies.  I don't care where they're from" you really get the feeling that these words are being filtered through the memory of still-fresh wounds.

Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull is absolutely fantastic.  His menace, his bearing, his accent and his appearance are all spot-on.  I was genuinely worried about the scene when Schmidt reveals himself as the Red Skull, but the makeup/CGI work is startlingly flawless.  Weaving's still able to emote under all that makeup and his repertoire of distinctive body language, facial expressions and vocal nuances come through crystal clear.  Weaving can easily add this character to his pantheon of great baddies including Mr. Smith from The Matrix and Megatron in the Transformers series.

Mercifully, the sweetly assertive Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter isn't just consigned to "hapless action movie love interest" purgatory.  She gets plenty of screen time, isn't afraid to charge right into the shit with the rest of the guys and is never one used as bait.  Her relationship with Chris also busts a few cliches.  Their mutual attraction makes sense, it's slowly fostered over ample time and it's tragically unrequited.

The sort of strength and authority Atwell is asked to convey on screen isn't always made convincing by lesser actresses, but she passes the test with flying colors.  Having said that you also get the impression that the character is trying to reconcile the role she's chosen for herself with the undeniable fact that she's also a very attractive woman.  Her jealously-fueled and unconventional method of testing Stark's prototype shield with Steve still standing behind it is uproariously funny.

The film is further strengthened by some fantastic supporting actors.  Tommy Lee Jones manages to sneak some subversive wit into the hoary old "Cranky Military Colonel" stereotype.  Stanley Tucci makes the most of his limited screen time by hamming it up impishly as Abraham Erskine.  Dominic Cooper is great as the dashing, roguish, near-fatally inquisitive Howard, Stark.  Fans will also be jazzed to see the cigar-chomping, bowler-hat bedecked Timothy "Dum Dum" Dugan boisterously incarnated in the form of Neal McDonough (who even gets a chance to shout a trademarked "WAA-HOO!" at one point.)  

This is a fun summer movie which I enjoyed more then Thor but less then say, Iron Man.  If anything, I would have liked for the film to have been a bit longer to allow for more character development after the mid-way point.  I think it would have resulted in a more balanced flick, even as it abandoned all patience and ran madly towards the inevitable hero vs. villain donnybrook.

I'd recommend this film just to see another pivotal and well-crafted building block slip into place in anticipation of Joss Whedon's Marvel superhero rally, The Avengers, which is slated for next summer.  I also recommend it as a somewhat retro echo of how summer blockbuster films used to be.

Er, well, at least the first half is...

 out of five.  Tilt: up.  

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