Not Quite A Mea Culpa

Yesterday I expressed skepticism about Scott Foundas‘s rave review of Anthony and Joe Russo‘s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I just feel he’s been a little too generous and obliging with CG fanboy crap. But not this time. Foundas was right on the money. I saw Winter Soldier last night at Disney and I have to give praise where due. This is one sharp, well-written (by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely), rock-solid, mega-efficient, super-expensive something or other, and with a certain humanist empathy that seeps through from time to time. It’s going to be a huge hit.

Speaking as a confirmed hater of comic-book movies, I was really and truly okay with this thing. It’s way, way above the level of The Avengers (which I mostly despised) and the second and third Iron Man movies. If you’re going to shell out your hard-earned coin for a comic-book movie, this is the way to go. Smart and swift and clean. The Russo brothers have been working on TV productions and M.I.A. from theatrical features since You and Me Dupree, but now they’re the new champs. And they have another Disney-distributed Captain America film due in May 2016.

I also admired Joe Johnston’s Captain America (2011), and I can shower the same praise upon Winter Soldier — “It speeds right along, cuts to the chase, does it right…it moves, mad-dashes, soars, whooshes, runs, delights and barrel-asses.” The CG is super grade-A (five VFX companies contributed) and the $175 million budget is all on the screen. It’s almost on the level of a James Cameron film…almost. Every line, every scene, every frame exudes shrewd judgment and tip-top craft.

And the entire cast gets it right. Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Frank Grillo, Samuel L. Jackson are right in the groove, but the stand-out (for me anyway) is Robert Redford in bad-guy mode — a career first if you don’t count Indecent Proposal. As Alexander Pierce, a corporate governmental smoothie, Redford plays it straight and grounded — a completely cool, pragmatic, self-aware, bullshit-averse man of substance and conviction as far as that goes. And he’s been given more than a few choice lines. (There’s one about Iron Man that’s hilarious.)

This is a genre film so you can’t get too excited, but the focus, craft and general efficiency that have gone into Winter Soldier are truly exceptional and top-of-the-line. If you’re going to do this kind of crap, this is how you do it.

Comic-book movies are always trying to top the last one and so they pour on that much more money and edge and excitement and technology and CG wallop, and this one certainly does that. How is JJ Abrams going to compete with his forthcoming Star Wars sequel? He delivered a similar type of whammo super-colossal climax in his last Star Trek film, and I was asking myself as I sat there last night, “How much bigger, faster, romp-stompier and more FX-persuasive can movies like this get? And to what end when they reach the next level?”

The humanity and true-blue character issues in Johnston’s version aren’t quite as pronounced in Winter Soldier, but they’re certainly tangible. This is a film about delivering the CG comic-book package with extra kapow and a current of ’70s-style paranoia, but a portion (at least in the third act) is about humanity and compassion and…well, let’s not get carried away. But in the context of a big superhero film, soul and empathy ain’t hay.

  • berg

    Iron Man 3 was my favorite due to the acting and the sharp writing of shane black … wasn’t blown away by the ending or anything but the first two acts were as funny as this kind of stuff gets …. that’s my story and I’m sticking to it

    • Correcting Jeff

      Everything to do with the “plot” was dreadful, including the action sequences.

      Everything else, however, was awesome: the Downey/kid stuff, the Mandarin stuff, etc., etc. It’s one of those rare action movies where the action sequences were far from the best things in it.

      • JeffMc2000

        That sounds like the Iron Man series in general.

      • Kano’s_Razor

        The Downey/kid stuff was incredibly forced and awkward — not to mention entirely disingenuous — and I’m more than a little shocked to see someone actually defending it as one of the film’s actual assets.

        There’s ONE-HALF of one good movie in the entire IM franchise, and that’s the first hour or so when Stark is stuck in that fucking cave. The rest is winky-winking, look-at-me, Hollywood horseshit, and you know it.

        • QTN

          “look at me”
          What the fuck does that even mean? I mean are you suggesting that the audience looks away instead? “Yes folks, go take a piss break. Get some popcorn, I’ll be waiting waiting!”
          Reminds me of Pink Floyd’s original half-baked plan (probably planned while they were baked) to perform their “The Wall” album completely behind an actual wall between them and the audience.

          As for RDJ and that kid, well Tony Stark is an asshole. A charming funny asshole, but an asshole none the less. If he acted more nice guy with that kid, I would’ve called “bullshit.”
          You probably wanted Stark to adopt the kid at the end or some silly trope shit like that, right?

          • Kano’s_Razor

            No. I wanted the film to spend a little less of its running time worshiping Stark’s dumbfuck, spoiled-brat, wanna-punch-him-in-the-face “hero.”

            And by a “little less,” I mean something shy of two hours. Jesus, it was exasperating. Only a complete tool could enjoy watching these things.

            • QTN

              It took you 2 days to write that?
              Impressive.

              • Kano’s_Razor

                Some of us aren’t as clever as you, what with your Pink Floyd “half-baked plan while they were baked” earth-shattering ZINGERS.

                Damn ur good!

                • QTN

                  Yes I am awesome, and you are indeed my inferior.
                  I know it hurt you to confess this fact. You think you expressed this as sarcasm. Go ahead, believe that. You’ll sleep better. But your subconciousness has betrayed you.
                  Now make me my dinner!

                  • Kano’s_Razor

                    I know you don’t appreciate — let alone watch — actual cinema with “non-super” characters, so I guess I’ll see you over in the next Marvel thread, brah.

                    Maybe we can talk about the best action figures or somethin’. Can’t wait!

    • wordfury

      I know Shane Black has his fans who revere his glib, smirky (IMO) approach to dialogue which presaged Tarantino and Whedon (two other questionable talents) but the truth is Iron Man 3 was awful. I don’t go to an Iron Man movie to see Robert Downey Jr trade quips with a “cute” child actor for no useful reason. IM3 sucked hard. And “as funny as this kind of stuff gets?” Why does it need to be funny? That’s what undermined The Avengers in my opinion. Spiderman 2, X2, Batman Begins, and the first Iron Man all got it perfect. Everything else, not so much. They weren’t ponderous (I’m looking at you TDK and TDKR) and didn’t condescend or resort to jokey “comedy” (Did I mention that the Avengers sucked also?). But if you’re sticking to that story…okay.

      • criterionstalker

        The second the film went to Xmastown 88 it jumped the shark then it became a drug lord film set in Miami!

        • QTN

          man some folks REALLY wanted IM3 to be just another remake of THE DARK KNIGHT like the ads promised. Am I right? zzzzzzzz

      • http://moviebob.blogspot.com/ MovieBob

        “Why does it need to be funny?”

        Because it’s about a guy wearing a candy-apple red suit of robot armor whose best pals are a radioactive ogre, an 80 year-old who looks 25 and dresses like the American flag and a Viking God from outer space; and they all got aquainted one weekend they spent fighting aliens and hanging out on their flying aircraft carrier. It’s ALREADY funny.

        • wordfury

          That’s a condescending attitude, Bob. Fantastical elements don’t necessarily need to be treated in a way that is frivolous or facetious. That radioactive ogre is a man desperately trying to control his violent nature (Jekyll and Hyde), that 80 year old is a time displaced man grappling with a world that is completely new to him in which all his loved ones have died. These are reasonably serious issues that can provide reasonably serious revelations. The glib approach some filmmakers take to comic book material tells me they never understood or respected it and probably shouldn’t have made the movie.

      • fishnets

        ” I don’t go to an Iron Man movie to see Robert Downey Jr trade quips with a “cute” child actor for no useful reason. ”
        My thoughts exactly! I hated that movie. It played like a typical Xmas movie that I never watch when they are on TV so why the hell anyone would make a cinema one with a superhero, no less? Kingsley was fun but that’s about it. Paltrow Girl Power twist was probably the worst since Keira Knightley’s “Piracy Is Freedom!” speech in POTC:AWE. Horrible.

        • Ivan__Drago

          Wait, did you say Iron Man 3 played like a typical TV Xmas movie?

          I get that you are trying to be creative in expressing how you didn’t care for something, but even in that context that’s kinda wrong and just dumb, no?

          Or did I miss the part in the standard Lifetime Christmas movies where 7 people are rescued while falling out of a plane and a mansion gets blasted into the ocean?

    • QTN

      I liked IM3 as Marvel hiring Shane Black to make a Shane Black buddy action movie. IM3 really was a pseudo-throwback to the 1980s, early 1990s Hollywood actioneer. It basically was the superhero THE LAST BOY SCOUT. Hell we even get the cliche ending location from that era with the dockyards!
      Sure the villains were whatever, but then again all the energy in these Black written/directed movies have always come from the leads and their chemistry together while quipping one-liners. Ben Kingsley was so much fun, too bad fanboys got upset that they didn’t get their Mandarin (racist Fu Manchu-esque chariacture) that they expected to get apparently.
      Plus its a step up from IM2. And miles away from the boring MAN OF STEEL, which was monkey see, monkey do but monkey sucks recycling of the Nolan playbook without Nolan actually running the plays.
      Of course TDKR is still better than any comic book movie we got last year, but that’s a whole other story.

  • Gabe_Toro

    Wish you’d stop making all these qualifiers and just admit YOU LOVE THIS STUFF, you BIG NERD!

    • JeffMc2000

      Ha! Yeah, for a comic book movie hater, Jeff seems to like quite a few of them. I really give him credit for having an open mind, and giving things that he assumes aren’t his bag a chance. He’s like the anti-Poland.

      • JeffMc2000

        I don’t mean that in a Hitler way.

      • joeybot

        Don’t worry, in two months he’ll hate it.

      • QTN

        To be fair to Jeff, at least he admitted he was wrong to shit on Variety and that yeah this one was actually good.

  • zygzag

    yeah, i avoid comic book/superhero movies. don’t get them, don’t care. but the footage i’ve seen from ‘cap’ has been excellent. sharp technique needed for the genre with believable character/dialogue and engaging action sequences.

    nice

  • MisterQuigley

    I guess this means I finally have to watch the first one. Damn.

    • GhostOfGigli

      I don’t think it will really matter, especially if you’ve already seen Avengers.

    • QTN

      First one is worth seeing. Marvel hired Joe Johnston to basically remake his ROCKETEER, but within their film universe. Intentionally corny serial throwback WW2-era flag waving movie where the heroes gun down Nazis like a carny shooting game.
      Hugo Weaving giving a Werner Herzog-esque performance as Red Skull is good ham fun too.

      • MisterQuigley

        I’m looking forward to seeing it.

  • GhostOfGigli

    Poland’s take (taken from Twitter):

    DavidPoland
    I don’t care what the gross ends up being, Captain America is a really bad movie. Felt bad for some good and some really good actors.
    3/20/14, 11:29 PM

    DavidPoland
    Expensive mediocre TV at best RT @Patsor: @DavidPoland seems universally liked by other critics…
    3/20/14, 11:58 PM

    DavidPoland
    No bad actors. Just tortured by a terrible script RT @sanjmovies: @DavidPoland Captain America WS – who were the bad actors in this?
    3/20/14, 11:59 PM

    DavidPoland
    @Tuosma Actually, I liked the first one. Had a clear, considered sensibility. Well directed. Only problem for me was the ending.
    3/21/14, 12:02 AM

    DavidPoland
    @Patsor Redford is the most abused actor in it. He looks old, tired, & desperate to figure out how to mouth dialogue w/o looking the sellout
    3/21/14, 12:07 AM

    DavidPoland: @Tuosma I was a very special episode of Agents of SHIELD

    DavidPoland: @AsaakDan @RyneClos @sanjmovies Me too. The weakest of the post Iron Man 1 crop.

    • AnnaZed

      ::jeez::

      • GhostOfGigli

        I guess it is no Matrix Reloaded in his book.

        • AnnaZed

          Ha!

    • QTN

      I seem to remember Poland bitching about TDW and IM3…yet now he’s backtracked on those complaints. “TDW was serviceable.” Uhuh sure. I remember when he called it a sausage fest.
      You know he’s writing up his GOTG pan review and saving it for August.

  • brenkilco

    Not sure how to characterize this review. Darning with barely effaced praise.

  • Clockwork Taxi

    Great to hear. I felt Iron Man 3 was a hard kick in the nuts, so it’s nice to hear this puppy works.

  • The Bandsaw Vigilante

    The Russo Brothers have already done killer work on shows like Dan Harmon’s “Community” and “Arrested Development,” so I’m utterly unsurprised to hear that they belted this one out of the park, too. Will be seeing this tonight with the wife.

  • Correcting Jeff

    “He delivered a similar type of whammo super-colossal climax in his last Star Trek film”

    Which Star Trek film was that? The one set in an entire galaxy of compelling aliens patrolled by starships the size of aircraft carriers that the director ended with a fistfight atop a fucking dump truck? THAT Star Trek film?

    Your definition of whammo super-collosal is… awry.

    • flosh

      Probably the Star Trek movie in which the fistfight atop a dumptruck is preceded by a spaceship crashing into, and wiping out, most of San Francisco.

      • QTN

        I forgot, was that ship crash before or after that movie remade the ending of WRATH OF KAHN?

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCrSVkrZZoM Mr. Sunset Terra Cotta

    THOM PHOOLERY SAYS….

    Anthony Russo was awesome in Harry Zimm’s Sli[Jesus. Get a life, will you.]

  • K. Bowen

    Jeff “Paycheck” Wells.
    ;)

  • Bob Strauss

    Genre cinema has been where real excitement tends to manifest for at least 75 years (Hitchcock, Lang, Mann, Ford, Hawks . . . ). Glad to see you could spot it this time around, Jeff. Now you’re ready for Raid 2!

    • http://www.hollywood-elsewhere.com/ Jeffrey Wells

      Not a chance.

      • Chris Willman

        “Raid 2″ is huge fun, if utterly socially unredemptive. There is no one alive who directs action better than that guy (and, having just slogged my way through the stultifying “Need for Speed,” I have plenty of points of comparison).

        • QTN

          “socially unredemptive”
          Bleh. I’m a liberal but on a fantasy level I have no trouble with Dirty Harry shooting bad guys in the face. Ole Eastwood can be funny and furious when depriving black suspects of their civil rights. Anyway action movies usually are right wing in their nature, though you’ve had a few left wing exceptions (Billy Jack, Fire Down Below, etc.) but they’re still all about solving problems with awesomely gratuitous violence.

        • Bob Strauss

          Whattaya mean, socially unredemptive? It says crime is bad, don’t kill your father and protect your sister. And her hammers.

  • Kano’s_Razor

    Thom Phoolery says…

    Jesus, I thought Sebastian Stan was dead! What the fuck’s he been doing since Luke unmasked him in Jedi?

    • QTN

      I like how his took make-up cues from the hero on ARROW.

  • donkaye

    Glad you liked it, Wells. Now let’s see if your opinion gradually curdles and turns in two months like it did on The Avengers.

  • RoscoepColetrane

    Why the hate for these movies. They are just adaptations of books, very popular books. That’s it. These movies have a general theme of over the top heroics but beyond that each property has its own DNA.