Wednesday, May 2, 2012

THE AVENGERS MOVIE COUNTDOWN: #3, Captain America: The First Avenger

* The following is my review of Captain America from last July...

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci (121 min.)

The final piece of The Avengers puzzle has been put into place with Captain America: The First Avenger. The film, from a maligned director, a suspect leading man, and a difficult task, manages these complications admirably, although it does not come out of things unscathed. It might be a little lumbering at times, and the editing has some major issues, but overall I was impressed by the look of Captain America. And the feel of it all. All of the issues going in were not issues at all once the film got rolling. But a few other may have popped up along the way.

Captain America is Steve Rogers, the prototypical 90-pound weakling from the muscle-man ads you used to find in the back of comic books. Through the help of some seamless SCGI work, Chris Evans plays this fragile Rogers as a man whose heart is too big to live inside this asthmatic with countless health issues keeping him from enlisting in the Army. All he wants to do is fight, and his courage is immeasurable. He catches the attention of one Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who talks Steve into volunteering for his top-secret military program. Rogers gladly volunteers. The unit is led by Colonel Phillips, played perfectly by (who else?) Tommy Lee Jones. Jones nails the comedy and wit, and as Phillips is reluctant to see the heroism inside this frail kid. But after a test shows Rogers’ mettle, Phillips has no choice but to embrace the decision to make Rogers the first super solider.

Rogers is transformed into a huge, hulking beast of a man, faster and stronger than anyone else. The operation is headed by Howard Stark, the Military’s number one weapons manufacturer. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Howard Stark is the father of Tony, a.k.a. Iron Man. Along for the ride as well is Peggy Carter, a hard-nosed Military woman played by Hayley Atwell. Peggy is, of course, the romantic interest, but Atwell makes her tough enough to be memorable in this world of men.

Unlike Iron Man, or The Incredible Hulk, there is a definitive villain in the Captain America legend which is a great advantage for the story itself. Hugo Weaving plays Johann Schmidt, one of Hitler’s finest soldiers who has branched away from the fürher and is in search of a higher power, one which will quicken his attempt at world domination. Schmidt is the leader of HYDRA, a branch of the Nazi party. He is also the Red Skull, as his face is a furious red/orange skeleton behind a human mask of Weaving. Hugo Weaving is perfect tonally as The Red Skull, seething menace and anger as he attempts to dominate the planet. And his look, the sharp red skeleton, is fascinating, just as I imagined it from the comics.

Meanwhile, Rogers has been exposed as the superhero of the War, and thus is reduced to traveling road shows, selling bonds to Americans while wearing a ridiculous version of his eventual costume and phantom-punching an actor dressed as Hitler. The rationale is, he is but one man, what could he do to try and save the world without a thousand others like him? The answer is, Rogers has the heart to do quite a lot.

In the second half, Captain America becomes a series of attacks on HYDRA locations by Rogers and the assembly of soldiers he collects. With the help of Stark and Peggy, Rogers fine tunes his costume to make it more user friendly and much tougher. And of course there is the shield, created by Stark, which becomes a great weapon for Rogers as he mows down HYDRA henchmen on his way to a one-on-one showdown with The Red Skull. Some of the action here has poor editing; it’s like the spatial elements were out of sync and it took a minute to figure out who was attacking who and where they were coming from. Things move at a furious clip during the action and could have been aided by some more confidence in the editing room. And the film naturally sags in certain areas, which seem in hindsight to be unavoidable lapses in the action.

Captain America
looks beautiful, and the acting is all quality. The best way to dilute the focus on Evans himself is to surround him by actors like Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones, which is not to say Evans does a poor job. He is quite good, but he feeds off these other actors and it helps to elevate his game. This is a classic throwback film, an adventure story which embellishes the newsreel mentality of the 40s serials. There are moments that are direct homages to Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Star Wars films, and I enjoyed these subtle winks. Captain America is a fun summer film, nothing more and nothing less, and it is a solid entry into The Avengers franchise. This is the final piece, and with all the things stacked against it the film manages to fight the odds. Kind of like Steve Rogers himself.