The Rip Van Winkle of superheroes goes rogue in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," an impressively equal sequel to 2011's superb origin story "Captain America: The First Avenger" that trades the earlier film's apple-pie Americana for the uneasy mood of a 1970s paranoia thriller -- a resonance underscored by the casting of "Three Days of the Condor" and "All the President's Men" star Robert Redford in a prominent supporting role. Chockfull of the breathless cliffhangers dictated by the genre, but equally rich in the quiet, tender character moments that made the first film unique among recent Marvel fare, "The Winter Soldier" marks a generally assured return to features for sibling helmers Anthony and Joe Russo (who've been in a moviemaking deep-freeze since 2002's "Welcome to Collinwood") and should easily keep the franchise gravy train powering through to "Avengers: Age of Ultron," due next May.
Notwithstanding the magical serum that first transformed 90-pound weakling Steve Rogers into his strapping, spandexed alter ego -- and that pesky Tesseract that has caused so much trouble all over the Marvel universe -- both "Captain America" pics have stayed largely grounded in the real world and a sense of real-world politics. In "The First Avenger," that meant pitting Rogers against the band of power-mad uber-Nazis known as Hydra. Here, it means bringing him face to face with an even more sinister foe: the American military-industrial complex. Taking inspiration from such hot-button topics as drone warfare, NSA spying and Wikileaks-style secret sharing, the screenplay by returning writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is smart but never didactic about situating "The Winter Soldier" in a world where those on both sides of the political aisle have done much to compromise basic human freedoms in the name of defending them.
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Gazing out over our nation's capital with smug, Rumsfeldian authority from a perch high in S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, Redford's Alexander Pierce is the very embodiment of the might-makes-right defense ethos succinctly summarized by the good Capt. Rogers as "holding a gun to everyone on Earth and calling it protection." And what guns! Pierce's top-secret Project Insight consists of three state-of-the-art drone-like "helicarriers" -- commissioned in the wake of the intergalactic battle royale that nearly leveled New York in "The Avengers" -- whose long-range weaponry can neutralize threats from a safe, airborne remove. They can even, we're told, analyze date from personal and public records to identify potential hostiles before they materialize. But hostile to whom exactly?
The trouble begins when venerable S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), depicted as being an old friend of Pierce's, expresses concerns about Insight's readiness to launch and asks for a delay. Pierce obliges, but almost as quickly Fury finds himself on the wrong end of a hair-raising car chase through the streets of downtown D.C. that leaves him just shy of dead. Fury sits most of the rest of the movie out, but not before instructing Rogers in the first rule of all conspiracy movies: "Don't trust anyone."
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From there, "The Winter Soldier" is off and running -- after all, what paranoia thriller worth its salt doesn't involve a lot of running, hairsbreadth escapes, improvised disguises, apparent allies who turn out to be foes, and vice versa? Fury's words to the contrary, Rogers finds that he can trust at least two people: the dangerous-limbed ex-KGB agent and Fury protege Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and former Army paratrooper Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who, like Rogers, lost his wingman in the war zone. At seemingly every turn, this intrepid trio find themselves assailed by the eponymous Winter Soldier, a lethal assassin with a silvery robotic arm and a half-century's worth of kills on his resume, even if he doesn't look a day older than Rogers. Though the true identity of this masked man won't come as a surprise to even the most casual fans of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's "Captain America" comics, the film does a nice job of winking knowingly at the series faithful while keeping neophytes on the hook until the climactic reveal.
Suffice to say that the past comes back to haunt in more ways than one in "The Winter Soldier." Where "The Avengers" couldn't seem to find time to ponder the disorientation the newly defrosted Rogers would surely feel upon re-entering the world, this movie does, particularly when Rogers tours his own elaborate Smithsonian exhibit and reunites with erstwhile lady love Peggy Carter (a touching Hayley Atwell). And in a sly running gag, Rogers tries to catch himself up on 70 years of missed pop culture, with choice shout-outs to Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" album and that Reagan-era espionage classic, "WarGames."
Evans is once again very appealing in the lead -- perhaps even more so this time because the character has been given more dimensions. The aw-shucks "kid from Brooklyn" is now a man with his feet in today but his head still very much in yesterday, and Evans excels at showing us the melancholy soul beneath the gleaming Pepsodent smile. Johansson similarly brings a real wistfulness to Natasha -- she, too, is dogged by her past, only where Rogers is still living in his, she'd like nothing more than to forget hers. The biggest surprise, however, is Redford, who has rarely taken supporting roles, and who plays Pierce to oily perfection. He seems to be having a blast blasting ICBM-sized holes in his well-worn persona of the unimpeachable liberal crusader.
It's to the credit of the Russos that they give the characters such room to breathe in a movie that easily might have been about rushing from one gargantuan setpiece to the next. Indeed, the directors (who have spent the last dozen years honing their craft in episodic TV) don't seem entirely comfortable yet on the large-scale action canvas, and their penchant for shooting action with a nervous handheld camera and fidgety, hyperkinetic editing rhythms makes one pine for "The First Avenger" with its beautifully rendered comicbook framings. They're best at the small, close-in stuff, like a wonderful elevator melee in which Rogers lays waste to a dozen or so opponents between penthouse and lobby. But the movie's extended climax, in which the helicarriers move into position and threaten to wreak their vengeance, often descends into a whiplash-inducing blur.
Though "The Winter Soldier" lacks the special period luster of "The First Avenger," craft contributions are generally topnotch, especially the sharp D.C. location shooting of d.p. Trent Opaloch ("District 9, "Elysium") and Henry Jackman's rousing, propulsive score (incorporating bits of Alan Silvestri's "First Avenger" fanfare). Sci-fi geeks of a certain age will get a special kick out of seeing "Logan's Run" ingenue Jenny Agutter reprising her brief "Avengers" role as a member of the U.N.-ish "World Security Council," and busting out some highly impressive karate moves to boot.