The superhuman efforts director Joe Johnston made to persuade Chris Evans to re-enlist in the comic book movie universe as Captain America pay more dividends in Captain America: The Winter Soldier"
Evans, that perfect specimen of American manhood, really sells the earnestness, the dry wit, the sense of duty and righteousness of the icon of American values that he represents in this sequel, even if Johnston isn't around to direct it.
It's great that The Winter Soldier is actually about something, a comic book spin on privacy and civil-liberties issues straight out of today's data-mining headlines. It's a movie about freedom versus fear, liberty versus "order."
There are clever, fascinating ways the story folds back into the world of Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), its great effects and its retro-future tech.
But The Winter Soldier lacks that lump-in-the-throat heart that Evans, Johnston and company brought to the first Captain America. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, co-directors of the rom-com You, Me and Dupree (2006), serve up a pretty generic sequel, with inconsequential villains and predictable flourishes.
From its quasi-fascist logo and overly imposing D.C. headquarters to the Stalinesque uniform that Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) sports, S.H.I.E.L.D. ("Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate" in the comics) is plainly a multinational agency that's reaching beyond its mandate to "fight evil, protect Earth." Robert Redford plays Alexander Pierce, who lords over the directorate of this ever-burgeoning security empire.
Fury barely has time to fret over the idea that "to build a really better world, sometimes that means you have to tear the old one down," when he's attacked. The Captain, Steve Rogers (Evans), and Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), set out to unravel this mystery, who the new menace is and what the enemy's masked "Winter Soldier" super-warrior has in his bag of tricks.
Johansson, who has no hint of a Russian accent this time, makes an apt, super-sexy sparring partner for the Captain. She's constantly suggesting he get back on the dating scene — in between epic brawls with legions of foes. Not that the Captain doesn't notice women — his nurse-neighbor, for instance (Emily VanCamp of TV's Revenge).
The fights are spectacular combinations of digitally augmented stunt work. The directors and screenwriters find all manner of new ways for the Captain's shield to pay off, and Evans and Johansson make these shooting, strangling punch-outs cool.
Anthony Mackie shows up as a potential new sidekick, which only calls attention to the question, "Hey, where are Captain America's other Avenger pals in this hour of crisis?"
The best new effect is a holographic teleconference involving Redford (fairly bland in this part) and the other governing execs of S.H.I.E.L.D. The worst cameo is Garry Shandling as a senator who apparently has been using Kim Novak's botox team.
The message that we're more likely to give up our freedoms by consent than by force is not a bad one to hammer home.
But The Winter Soldier has long, talky, dead stretches. It's emotionally flat, a lot closer to Evans' Fantastic Four films or the recent Thor sequel than it is to Captain America: The First Avenger, or The Avengers. It's OK for April, in other words, but not up to the higher standards of a Marvel summer blockbuster.