It still pays to be a good guy
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (PG)
Action/136 minutes/Opens today
The story: After spending 70 years frozen in ice following the defeat of Red Skull (Captain America: The First Avenger, 2011) and saving the earth in The Avengers (2012), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), aka Captain America, is playing catch-up in present-day Washington, DC.
Working as an operative for intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D., the super soldier stumbles upon a government conspiracy - known to his superior, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) - that will put millions of lives at risk.
Soon after, a close friend is killed by the mysterious Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and Rogers becomes the prime suspect. He goes on the run with his colleague, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and new ally Falcon (Anthony Mackie) to find the assassin before it's too late.
IT'S hard to be a good guy these days - at least, on the silver screen. Being honest, selfless and brave just doesn't cut it any more.
Which is why Chris Evans' Captain America character is so refreshing to me, in this age of anti-heroes and cultural pessimism.
His civilian alter-ego, Steve Rogers, is behind the curve not just in his general knowledge (he even keeps a list of all the things he missed during his hibernation, like the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall), but also his values, which might seem naive and idealistic today.
Of course, this makes him ill-suited for the morally grey world of 21st century espionage, where having loyalty and compassion can be a liability. Paranoia is the order of the day, as spelt out in a warning by S.H.I.E.L.D. head honcho Nick Fury: "Don't trust anyone."
What's more, the bad guys are not as clearly defined as they used to be - one's closest friends can turn out to be his greatest enemies. Secretary Alexander Pierce - played to oily perfection by Three Days Of The Condor's Robert Redford - takes preventive policing to its logical extreme with Project Insight, an initiative that will, in Fury's words, "neutralise a lot of threats before they even happen".
And then there's the eponymous villain, the antithesis of Cap.
Marvel fans and Google searchers might be able to guess the identity of the Winter Soldier, unknown even to himself. Regardless, the masked menace is probably one of Marvel Studios' best antagonists, second only to Loki.
Terrifying, relentless and done up like a Goth Terminator, he poses a more credible threat than any lame Dark Elf or silly-looking Hydra leader.
Rogers won't be going through his ordeal alone, though.
One of my favourite arcs of the movie is his relationship with Scarlett Johansson's superspy, Black Widow, who has a more laissez-faire approach to ethics.
Evans and Johansson are friends in real life and their chemistry shows in their onscreen repartee, which is adorable and revelatory.
Newcomer Sam Wilson, aka Falcon, is a welcome addition to the roster. Anthony Mackie's former paratrooper is an equal to Rogers and takes centrestage in his super-cool wing suit during the film's climactic dogfight.
The directors, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo of Arrested Development and Community fame, ground their flick in real-world action, with the occasional display of near-future technology.
Cap utilises various fighting disciplines, from Krav Maga to Brazilian jujitsu, to take down his assailants, even going toe to toe in one scene with a French mercenary played by mixed martial artist Georges St-Pierre. An intense car chase and shoot-out, both filmed in Cleveland, wouldn't look out of place in a Michael Mann movie.
Although the film has the tone of a 70s political thriller, it addresses contemporary themes like mass surveillance, pre-emptive wars and sleeper cells. It's deep stuff the average moviegoer wouldn't expect in a superhero blockbuster.
I wish there were more of such films which transcend their genre and work on multiple levels.
One chip in what is otherwise another feather in Marvel Studios' cap is that many of the action sequences are cut so frequently and shot so shakily, it's difficult to see who's punching who. It seems that going dolly-less is de rigeur nowadays.
Also, neophytes might have a hard time keeping up with the exposition or catching the subtle references to future instalments.
Still, Cap's third outing manages to be the best kind of film, one that is not only entertaining, but also thought-provoking.
The ending is a game changer, and I look forward to seeing how the Marvel Cinematic Universe develops from here on out.
By the way, look out for Singaporean actor Chin Han, who plays Redford's foreign counterpart.