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‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’: Superhero sequel deftly mixes fantasy, drama

George St-Pierre Chris Evans 'CaptaAmerica: The Winter Soldier.' | Marvel pho

George St-Pierre and Chris Evans in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." | Marvel photo

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‘CAPTAIN AMERICA: the winter soldier’ ★★★1⁄2

Captain America Chris Evans

Winter Soldier Sebastian Stan

Black Widow Scarlett Johansson

Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson

Falcon Anthony Mackie

Walt Disney Studios presents a film directed by Anthony and Joe Russo and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Running time: 136 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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Updated: May 5, 2014 8:10AM

From the corniest of all names to the Wonder Bread personality of Steve Rogers whether he was in costume or not, the 1940s version of Captain America we saw in the 2011 movie was one of the blander superheroes in the Marvel Universe.

One might think the unfrozen Steve/Cap who was part of the ensemble in “The Avengers” might not be able to sustain the lead in a modern-day adventure, but the good news is in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” we not only get an edgier, more complex, more compelling storyline, we get the most badass 95-year-old the world has ever known.

Looking as pumped up as a potential first-round NFL draft choice at a scouting combine and displaying a better honed sense of humor than he possessed back in the day, Steve/Cap (Chris Evans) is finding his way around modern-day Washington, trying to soak up all he can about everything he’s missed. Steve walks around with a little notebook filled with entries such as “Steve Jobs/Apple” and “Moon Landing.” (He also makes a side trip to the Smithsonian, where they have an awesome exhibit about … Captain America.)

Under the watchful eye of Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury — and I mean that literally, as Nick has just the one good eye — Steve finds himself working with the duplicitous Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) as agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, which is engaged in a multilayered, generation-spanning war with HYDRA, the evil organization formed by the Nazis. Natasha flirts with Steve and encourages him to go out and get, um, lucky. There’s an obvious chemistry between them, but they resist the romance, which is probably a good idea given the number of issues they’re both working on.

Amid a number of terrific action sequences with the usual CGI destruction and some well-choreographed hand-to-hand (and hand-to-shield) combat, we get a couple of nifty twists and turns that keep us guessing as to who’s on the side of good, who’s on the side of evil — and who’s wavering, big-time. The score is more reminiscent of a “Dark Knight” movie than a typical Marvel romp, and there are a number of serious supporting performances (most notably Toby Jones) that lend weight to the storyline.

At its best, “The Winter Soldier” reminded me of a “Bourne” movie, or a classic 1970s spy thriller such as “Three Days of the Condor” or “The Parallax View.” In fact we get the “Condor” star himself, Robert Redford, playing against type in a finely modulated performance as Director of U.S. Security Alexander Pierce, who believes the best way to root out threats is to find them before they attack. As Pierce coolly explains, to save 7 billion people, he’ll gladly eliminate 20 million.

And how will Pierce find these 20 million potential threats? By gathering every single piece of data from DNA to emails to phone conversations, rooting out the targets, and eliminating them. Even in this Marvel-ized version of present day, the real-world parallels aren’t difficult to discern.

As always with the Marvel Universe, you just have to go with certain elements or you’re gonna drive yourself nuts. I counted at least five references to Tony Stark and/or Iron Man, and there’s mention of Bruce Banner as well, but we just have to accept that even when America’s freedom is at stake and millions of lives are at risk, Nick Fury, Captain America and Black Widow are going to fight this fight without reaching out to Thor or any of the other guys. (They do get some valuable assistance from Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, who has developed the coolest jetpack personal flying device you’ve ever seen.)

Besides, we’re accepting that these people can fly or turn into un-jolly green giants or hurl magical hammers across the universe, so it shouldn’t be all that hard to stop ourselves from saying, “Why doesn’t Cap just call Tony Stark?”

Co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo and the team of screenwriters have fashioned a story with just the right balance of superhero fun, nods to the greater Marvel Universe and genuine dramatic tension. There are two great pop culture jokes — one a nod to a classic 1980s thriller, the other a visual cue to one of the main star’s earlier films.

The more screen time Chris Evans accrues as Captain America, the more engaging the performance. He’s terrific here. Scarlett Johansson looks like she’s having as much fun as she’s ever had onscreen. Jackson and Mackie are solid. And Robert Redford plays his role as seriously and as thoughtfully as if this was 1978 and he was in a thriller directed by Sydney Pollack.

As for the Winter Soldier, I’ll leave you to discover what that’s all about on your own.

This edition of “Captain America” could have benefitted from Major Editing. Some scenes, including a long chase sequence with Fury as the target, drag on for far too long.

Nevertheless. While not on a par with “The Avengers” or the first and third “Iron Man” movies, this is another rock-solid chapter in the big-screen story of Marvel.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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