Aug 2, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger [3D] [12A]

Dir: Joe Johnston
I have previously described Joe Johnston as a journeyman filmmaker, but frankly that was unfair, and undersells the man who made, among others, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer, October Sky, and now this; one of the best blockbusters of the year. Obviously the film of Johnston's that this one most closely relates too is The Rocketeer, and actually they share quite a lot of DNA. From the square jawed hero to the World War Two setting to the ruby lipped love interest, this often feels like a large scale version of what Johnston couldn't quite afford to do twenty years ago, but it's the tone that is both most closely reminiscent of that film, and most refreshing.

After a lot of darker superhero movies, and the overblown and frankly tedious Thor, it's great to see a superhero movie that is as much boys own fun as Captain America, and that's what Johnston brings; a sense of fun, and a daring, a willingness to push the boat out just a little and do things that might seem a bit crazy (like the mid-movie musical sequence which introduces Captain America to the world at large). It all adds up to a pretty exhilarating watch, and a film that pulls you along on a wave of good will, even when it doesn't entirely work.

Captain America's origin story (which is retold here) is relatively well known, but for the record... 90 pound weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants to go to World War Two and fight, but he's repeatedly turned down until he's offered a chance by Dr Erskine (Stanley Tucci). Eventually Rogers is chosen as the test subject for a programme designed to create an army of super soldiers to fight the nazis, but Erskine is killed by a double agent and so Captain America must fight Nazi agent / megalomaniac 'Red Skull' (Hugo Weaving) as the army's only super soldier, leading a team of commandos.

Having been an irritating Human Torch in the awful Fantastic Four, Chris Evans wouldn't have been my first, second, or even sixth choice for the role of Captain America. Well, colour me surprised, because Evans proves to be just about perfect casting. Even if there are some problems (which we'll get to) with the opening forty minutes of the film, before Rogers' transformation, Evans' performance isn't one of them. He makes you believe in Rogers as a fundamentally decent and devoted man who deserves to be given this huge chance, so even before he gets to don the uniform, you're on his side (not that you wouldn't be, the other side being a Nazi with severe sunburn). Once we finally see him as Captain America it becomes clear just how much work Evans put into this character. First of all he's built like the brick shithouse that all the other brick shithouses are scared of, but he convinces as a character as well as simply as a force; there is an authority about him that works when he's leading the (howling?) commandos and a sensitivity that remains very much more Steve Rogers than Captain America.

As the evil Red Skull Hugo Weaving doesn't do anything especially groundbreaking, but his slightly cartoony German accent works well, he's quite menacing in both look and character and his big evil plan (though a little ill defined) is very big and very evil. Red Skull has always been, from a visual standpoint, one of the most striking characters in Marvel Comics long history, and he's certainly done justice here, with what looks to be a largely practical make up job achieving something in a suitable grey area between comic book extravagance and genuinely freaky. Weaving is also able to work well with the make up; a malleable actor, he loses none of his characterisation after the Red Skull is unveiled.

In the rest of the supporting cast there are drily funny turns from Tommy Lee Jones (whose "I'm not kissing you" to Rogers as he goes on his climactic mission may be the best of the film's abundant good lines) and Stanley Tucci, each of whom function as something of a Father figure for Rogers. Sebastian Stan makes for a solid Bucky Barnes and recurring cast members like Dominic Cooper (as Howard Stark) and Samuel L Jackson (as Nick Fury) keep the Avengers tease ticking over relatively unobtrusively.

The script isn't exactly the most original you'll have seen, in fact there are times at which you'd swear that an uncredited magpie had written most of it, as it plunders other superhero and adventure movies for events, images and moments. It's hard to mind though, first because all the elements coalesce well, into a movie that feels very much of a piece, and also because this is something of a trademark of Joe Johnston's. In Honey I Shrunk the Kids he riffed on 50's sci-fi B-Movies.  The Wolfman was an extended homage to James Whale (an unsuccessful one, but still) and in The Rocketeer he paid tribute to such diverse things as Errol Flynn, German expressionism and Rondo Hatton. Captain America is unashamedly - and entertainingly - a movie for movie fans, nods subtle and blatant are shot in the direction of Busby Berkley (in a hugely enjoyable musical sequence), Indiana Jones and even A Matter of Life and Death. It's a slight pity that Albert Pyun's 1990 Captain America doesn't get a nod here (surely a movie like this can make room for the psych Hitler).

Obviously being a superhero movie, action is a key component of Captain America and, again, while it won't win awards for originality, the action is well mounted, easy to follow thanks to solid geography and calm cutting within scenes, pretty exciting and sometimes provides some unexpected moments (as Rogers chases a Nazi agent a kid gets thrown in the water, but before Cap can dive in and save him says "I can swim, go get him").

Not everything works though. There are three issues that conspire to stop Captain America from being quite as great as it should (and could) be. First, as is often the case, is the retrofitted 3D. It's not terrible (though I did notice, for the first time in a long time, some ghosting problems), but to describe it as necessary, or to suggest that it adds anything to the film would be untrue. This is not an especially deep film, and nor does it need to be, in any sense. The second issue is with some of the CGI. Most of the effects are seamlessly realised, but the Tron: Legacy like effects that turn Chris Evans into the thin, weedy, Rogers for the film's first act, though much better than they were in the trailer, often don't work. As was the case in Legacy the problems usually seem most pronounced when the character wears a shirt with a high collar - perhaps because it creates a hard seam - again it's not a disaster, but combined with the fact that Evans' deep voice struggles to fit in that character's frame it does give the film's first act a bit of an uphill struggle.

The third problem is the most serious, and it's with a major character. I'm sure British actress Hayley Atwell is capable and charming, but as Cap's love interest Peggy Carter she has little to do besides be very British and wear almost impossibly red lipstick. There are a couple of hints that she might be capable in action, but this is never explored, and aside from a brief glimpse of her wielding a machine gun she sits largely on the sidelines. This is a real problem, because Peggy is so unmemorable that she's even overshadowed by a brief but forceful turn from feline British actress Natalie Dormer, whose cameo made me wonder why either this actress or this character hadn't won the love interest role. As it is the love interest is a rare dull spot in an otherwise commendable film.

I won't pretend that Captain America: The First Avenger is a great superhero film; it hasn't the depth of X-Men: First Class, the jaw dropping design of Batman Returns or the cheerful disregard for conventional limits of Kick Ass, but it is fun. Hang on, scratch that, it's Fun! It demonstrates that Joe Johnston knows how to help you have a rollicking good time, and that though that may not be the loftiest aim, it's no bad thing.

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