Red, White and Better: "Captain America" a lot of fun and more risk-taking

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
136 min., rated PG-13.

National security now has a central role in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," the sequel to 2011's spirited, old-fashioned "Captain America: The First Avenger." Like 2013's lackluster place-holder "Thor: The Dark World," it's set after the cataclysmic events of "The Avengers," but Cap's second movie actually ups its game by taking more risks without stepping on the toes of fanboys, having more at stake, and diving into darker, more interesting directions. Until now, directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo's biggest film project was 2006's "You, Me and Dupree"that tiresome Owen Wilson-Kate Hudson-Matt Dillon comedyso this much bigger project is no doubt an improvement for them and everything in the Marvel Universe. Swiftly paced, genuinely thrilling at times, and a good deal of fun, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" has what it takes to make audiences' anticipation match their actual enjoyment.

Still struggling to adjust to the new world after being frozen and then assembled as an Avenger, 95-year-old former WWII soldier Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) continues to work for espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D. at the Triskelion headquarters in Washington, D.C. He's soon called upon to save a vessel on the Indian Ocean from pirates, with the help from multi-tasking fellow agent Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who extracts date from the ship's computers. Her side agenda triggers Rogers to question if he can trust S.H.I.E.L.D. or not, until director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) introduces him to Operation: Insight. Immediately following, Fury is denied access to information on the operation and then placed in the hospital by an elusive, metal-armed assassin known as The Winter Soldier. Rogers is then summoned by agency official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), but then becomes the hunted when he's branded a fugitive. It seems Pierce's organization HYDRA isn't out to keep the peace.

The Russo brothers, working from a script by screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely ("Thor: The Dark World"), handle "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" more as a paranoid political thriller than merely a superhero action extravaganza. As Rogers wonders whom he can truly trust in the contemporary world when his agency has been compromised, the viewer is asked to wonder about our own government. Yes, there's still a lot of property damage going on, especially on the freeway, but the action set-pieces feel less cartoonish and more visceral. Some of them may be typically over-edited, but more often than not, one is actually able to appreciate the choreography and not wonder where the stunt men (and woman) took over. Three of them are standouts, including a kinetic sequence on the S.H.I.E.L.D. ship, an elongated but nifty and exciting car chase between Nick Fury in his SUV and others, and one where Rogers believably takes on about ten men all by himself in an elevator is a real doozy.

More than just a fish-out-of-water joke or a walking star-spangled banner, the brawny but lean Chris Evans is the film's heart and soul as Steve Rogers/Captain America. Even if the character still has few defects that would render him even more interesting, he's an old soul who's not only given a superhero's duty but faces a personal dilemma. There's a surprising poignancy to his scenes with his former love interest, the now-elderly, dementia-stricken Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), as well as a ghost from the past. Coming into her own as Natasha, Scarlett Johansson uses her energetic delivery for cheeky comedy and physical prowess (though such a skill takes on a different connotation for her in "Under the Skin"). She and Evans share a crackling chemistry as they casually converse about which woman in the office he should ask out, even as they're taking out the bad-guy trash. Fresh additions: Anthony Mackie gets a part in the verbal interplay and action as war veteran Sam Wilson, and Robert Redford, not an unfamiliar face to conspiracies, spy games, and the political world in the movies, is tailor-made for the role of World Security Council leader Alexander Pierce and brings a none-too-weary power. Also, Emily VanCamp has a part as Rogers' flirty apartment neighbor, but she's a bit underused, even when her cover is shed. Nearly every character is satisfyingly integrated into the plot. The identity of the film's subtitled antagonist, The Winter Soldier, should be kept under wraps, but the actor, whose face is covered for a while not unlike "The Dark Knight Rises'" Bane and then creepily hidden in shadows, is pretty menacing and ruthless in the part of the ghostly killing machine.

Not only will "Captain America: The Winder Soldier" make the Marvel fanboys clap and cheer, but it's just a true crowd-pleaser. The pacing is tighter than the previous film, and the script is smart and engaging with a number of expectations-twisting surprises in its loaded third act and a playful sense of humor, dropping several callbacks to other Marvel movies, a reference to 1983's "WarGames," and a perfectly placed visual cue to one of Samuel L. Jackson's best movies. Naturally, if anyone has seen any of the eight previous Marvel movies leading up to "The Avengers," you will want to wait patiently for one tag scene and the post-credits scene, which teases what's to come in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is still transitory popular-entertainment, but it does everything a movie about a patriotic superhero, whose shield is just a brutal weapon next to his biceps, should do. What's more, it does it quite well.

Grade: B +