CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (PG)
136 minutes/Opens on Thursday/ ** 1/2
The story: Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), known to the world as Captain America, is trying to adjust to life following the cataclysmic events seen in The Avengers (2012).
The World Security Council, in a bid to win the next war with supervillains, builds ultra-destructive flying machines that will patrol the earth.
But not all is as it seems, and director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Rogers come under threat from a mercenary known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).
The Marvel universe has been on a roll lately, starting with The Avengers (2012) and continuing with Iron Man 3 (2013).
Disney, Marvel Entertainment's parent company, has been hiring directors with unique voices. The gamble has been paying off.
Shane Black gave Iron Man 3's characters plenty of mouthy attitude while Joss Whedon made the superhero interplay in The Avengers playful.
So it is a puzzle why Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not as sharp and smart as it should be. The film's helmers, the Russo brothers, Anthony and Joe, possess credentials that are as hip as they get in Hollywood, having crafted episodes of cult comedies Arrested Development (2003 - 2005) and Community (2009 - 2014).
These are shows with small but fiercely loyal followings, and also carry enough critical praise to fill several issues of Variety.
Little of the invention and crackle of either television series is evident.
There is an attempt at a running gag in the form of finding the anachronistic Rogers (Evans) a date. Other than showing that our defrosted hero pines for a sweetie of the type he used to know, the thread is forgotten when the punches start flying.
All this culminates in an overlong computer graphics-driven final battle that recalls Avatar (2009), but with more bombast.
The story plays on the tension between Rogers (Evans), with his old-world values, and a bureaucracy intent on mass surveillance.
This puts him at odds with S.H.I.E.L.D. director Fury (Jackson), government official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and Romanoff, also known as Black Widow (Johansson).
Long-time liberal Redford plays the right-wing, pro-surveillance Pierce, a bureaucrat who puts security before freedom. As an actor, he is too stiff and restrained to have fun with a character that evinces both megalomania and paranoia.
There is a go at creating a political thriller atmosphere, a game of sleeper agents and sabotage from within, set against a contemporary war-against-terror context. These high-minded goals are undermined by the weak suspense element, as it becomes painfully apparent who the baddies are midway through the story.
The character of supervillain Winter Soldier (Stan) is a jarring presence. His sudden appearance, made up like a goth street magician, reminds all that this is just another action movie.
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