Sunday, July 24, 2011

Review: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) TH

An Uncle Sam who gets his hands dirty

While other superheroes are just out to stop thugs and fight crime for what the police and average citizens can't handle, instead Captain America is a political savior with a chunk of the world in his sights: someone who has a knack for heroics, team leadership and is capable of changing the tides of war with not only his brawn but his determination and unselfish attitude.

"Captain America: The First Avenger" is set during World War II and like "X-Men: First Class" it creates an alternate universe with shared commonalities to the past, as what's unfolding isn't just working in the shadows like, say, "National Treasure," rather it's stepping out to the light to make its own substitute history with different names and faces. In doing so it manages to pose a series of what if questions: What if Germany perfected scientific weapons before the US? What if one man could actually make a significant difference in war? What if they had more advanced artillery and technology in the '40s and how would it have panned out otherwise? Hitler is only mentioned with mock and referenced talk, but instead the main Axis bad guy named Johann Schmidt (Weaving) is at the forefront with possibly more ambition than the tiny mustached dictator could hope. Nazis and swastikas aren't delved into but instead an organization/political party/cult named "HYDRA" with a different but still threatening emblem to wave.

A scrawny guy named Steve Rogers (Evans) from Brooklyn, who has the underdeveloped frame of an average 13 year old but the courage of a warrior, is doing all but holding his breath to enlist in the military so he can serve his country despite health issues and a Hobbit stature. After continually getting denied, he gains his chance when meeting an honest man named Dr. Abraham Erskine (Tucci) who's an idealist scientist who sees potential in Rogers for a new experiment. The serum can't be used on just anyone as it will transform the person into an unstoppable super soldier as well as amplify their temperament from bad to really bad, and good to extremely good. Thus when the ultra-patriot-to-be comes out a taller, bulkier one-man-army, not to mention a lady magnet, he has the perfect antithesis of a rival with Red Skull on the side of HYDRA who uses his powers for gain and domination.

Like "Green Lantern" this thoroughly concentrated on character development, including what it means to have these awesome strengths and how to direct and use them to their maximum potential. Though when it came time to get his hands dirty, the antagonist vs protagonist element seemed somewhat straightforward, glossed over and easy to the unchallenged Captain. The only moment the brain kicks in is when a scene is too vague rather than being too complex. From doing campaign pledges for war bonds and gimmicky shows that include American flag dressed woman dancing to hooting soldiers, Cap gets heckled off stage by real combatants and decides to put his abilities to the test to save his friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) and fellow soldiers held prisoner. Soon enough with the help of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) with his uniform, he has a motley crew of fighters that go out on missions that somehow have a detrimental effect on the war effort, yet it's never fully explained how that's possible. It makes things extremely simple and that part of the story only seems there to do nothing but perpetuate fast flying, combustive action.

Red Skull, apart from his intensely commanding appearance and dress, wasn't as outlined and the performance came across at times like a run-of-the-mill, snide villain who ends up being somewhat predictable. Not to mention some of the delivery was scripted to a fault as some lines felt preplanned and a lost cause to the quick pacing. Chris Evans went for sincerity due to toning down his usual showmanship and humor from past films like "Fantastic Four" and instead lets others take on one-liners like the hilarious Tommy Lee Jones who plays the no nonsense, southern Colonel Chester Phillips. Evans performs the role as somewhat naive to the world at large from knowing exactly what he wants and everything else along the way being second, such as dames and his own well-being. Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) shows up as the physically attractive agent on the surface but underneath is confident and not to be underestimated. There's a budding love angle but fortunately the picture never slows down to entirely make it a distracting cliche that every blockbuster summer flick "must" have.

"Captain America: The First Avenger" never lets up from being relentlessly theatrical as a number of scenes are set up with the intention of going for a grand show and timed out unveiling rather than attempting to create a piece of naturalism or history lesson. Despite its exaggeration and garish ways, it indeed works as a mostly simple and entertaining experience with a little food for thought about Cap's little guy background and eventually plenty of action fodder to give it energy. The 3-D wasn't completely maximized to its full potential but it did have its moments of shining, such as a few particular scenes that for the first time actually made me flinch with his iconic shield coming right out of the screen! The film moves steadily along and doesn't feel its two hour time length partly due to frequent location changes. The effort put into the art direction and set pieces while melding CGI positively showed as they were generally constructed down to the finest detail. In terms of fire power in a war movie, this shuffles between guns that shoot bullets and fictitious ones with beams of energy, as well as flame throwers and tanks, and, of course, more fiery explosions than can be counted on fingers and toes in a packed theater.

Director: Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park III, The Wolfman)
Starring: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Neal McDonough
Website: IMDB