Greatest Generation hottie Steve Rogers returns in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," now in his 90s but well preserved, thanks to a cryogenic sleep. He keeps a handwritten list of new things to try, including "Thai food" and "Nirvana (band)," but there's a more troubling development for this World War II veteran: a surveillance-obsessed America that is beginning to resemble the fascist regime he once fought.
"The Winter Soldier" picks up shortly after 2011's "Captain America: The First Avenger," but the films are vastly different. The first was a golden-hued romance directed with yesteryear style by Joe Johnston ("The Rocketeer"). The sequel is newfangled, gadget-happy and paced like a globe-hopping thriller by directors Anthony and Joe Russo ("You, Me and Dupree"). Its ripped-from-the-headlines plot is impressively up to date, and the action is tougher -- and better -- than most superhero fare. But I'll just say it: "The First Avenger" was a work of art, while "The Winter Soldier" is serviceable entertainment.
Chris Evans still shines as Captain America, the true-blue soldier whose main loyalty is to the buddy next to him. He doesn't trust the slippery agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), but they'll have to work together after their agency, S.H.I.E.L.D., is compromised. Joined by newcomer The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), they'll battle the Winter Soldier, a metal-armed assassin. His sad, soulful eyes belong to Romanian actor Sebastian Stan, who does a lot with a near-silent role.
"The Winter Solider" ventures into political minefields but ends up mostly pirouetting. Samuel L. Jackson, as superhero ringleader Nick Fury, delivers Rumsfeldian aphorisms ("S.H.I.E.L.D. takes the world as it is, not as we would like it to be") while the government begins preemptively targeting "undesirables." Captain America provides the voice of constitutional conscience: "I thought the punishment came after the crime."
Into this cartoon version of realpolitik strolls a terrific Robert Redford as World Security Council chief Alexander Pierce, whose silver temples and platinum-gray suit ooze wealth and wile. Redford provides some serious counterbalance in this otherwise fluffy flick, though he's also spoofing his liberal-lefty persona and winking at his classic 1975 conspiracy-thriller, "Three Days of the Condor." (To say more would be a spoiler.)
Missing from "The Winter Soldier" are the entrancing visuals and old-fashioned heart that made the first film such a distinctive entry in the Marvel canon. Captain America, as he must, is keeping up with the times.
PLOT The first Avenger takes on terrorists, super-soldiers and something like the NSA surveillance program.
CAST Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie
BOTTOM LINE The action is bruising, the politics merely glancing, in this superhero sequel, which finds an accessible middle ground between "The Dark Knight" and, say, "Mission: Impossible."
Captain America is back to save the day on movie screens this weekend. But he's not the only titular captain who's been a commanding presence on-screen. Here are three other memorable captains courageous -- and one captain outrageous.
CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935) -- Tasmanian devil Errol Flynn became a star with this swashbuckler about a wrongly imprisoned doctor who rises from galley slave to ship's commander. He also wins the hand of a fair maiden (Olivia de Havilland).
CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER (1951) -- As Hornblower, Gregory Peck led his crew through treacherous waters during the Napoleonic wars. Five years later, Peck would hit the high seas again, playing Captain Ahab in John Huston's "Moby Dick."
CAPTAIN RON (1992) -- If ever a captain was lost at sea, it was Kurt Russell's strung-out, one-eyed skipper who takes a Chicago family on a yachting vacation that goes way off course. Critically panned when it came out, the movie has become a cult favorite, thanks to Russell's uproarious performance.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) -- As real-life Captain Richard Phillips, Tom Hanks battled a gang of Somali pirates led by Oscar nominee Barkhad Abdi. The Somali-born actor should have asked for a screenwriting credit as well for ad-libbing the movie's most famous line: "Look at me! I'm the captain now."--Daniel Bubbeo