by Steve Habrat
Last summer, Marvel Studios kicked off Phase 2 of their cinematic universe with Iron Man 3, a film that featured a marketing campaign that hinted that this new set of superhero films would embrace a darker tone. Unfortunately, many were left disappointed, as Iron Man 3 quickly succumbed to the creeping sarcasm and carefree antics that Tony Stark had become known for. The hope for some darker action carried over to November’s Thor: The Dark World, which suggested that things might be getting grittier for the Norse god, but once again the audience got more of Marvel’s winking escapism. To make things worse, Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World implied that Marvel might be producing these films a little too quickly, as they were far from the superhero factory’s best efforts. Somebody should tell Stan Lee that even superheroes need some time off. Now, right on the cusp of the summer movie season, audiences are given the chance to catch up with super soldier Steve Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Solider, which easily ranks as the best solo-Avengers outing yet. Under the direction of Joe and Anthony Russo, Captain America: The Winter Soldier finds Marvel getting in touch with their dark side, and opting for a much more plot-driven approach that caters more to adults than to the pint-sized viewer. The result is a heart-pounding political thriller that gives Joss Whedon’s The Avengers a run for its money as the best superhero film from Marvel Studios.
Two years after the battle for New York City, Steve Rogers aka Captain America (played by Chris Evans) has been living in Washington D.C., where he has been attempting to adjust to modern day life and taking on various missions for intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. One day, Rogers is approached by S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) about leading a rescue mission to help save a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship from a band of vicious Algerian pirates. The rescue mission seems to go as planned, but Rogers is enraged to learn that fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka The Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) nearly compromised the rescue attempt by stopping to collect classified data from the ship’s computer for Fury. Upon returning to Washington D.C., Fury briefs Rogers on Project Insight, which involves three massive gunships that are able to neutralize dangerous threats before they even happen. Rogers is less the pleased to learn about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new defensive program, but things get worse after Fury is attacked and nearly killed by a mysterious assassin known only as The Winter Soldier (played by Sebastian Stan). With orders from Fury to not trust anyone at S.H.I.E.L.D., including their senior leader, Alexander Pierce (played by Robert Redford), Rogers enlists the help of Romanoff and newly befriended war hero Sam Wilson aka Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie) to help him uncover S.H.I.E.L.D.’s dirty secrets—secrets that could threaten the lives of millions of innocent American citizens.
Unlike usual Marvel fare, Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t focus all of its energy on the CGI battles, explosions, fistfights, showdowns, and whatever else gets the audience’s adrenaline pumping. Sure, there is no shortage of action to be found in The Winter Solider—that I can assure you—but what we have here is something that gets more mileage out of the complex plot and meaty character development. Credit this welcome shift to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who provide a screenplay that reaches back to Cap’s pulpy WWII origins while never forgetting to develop the modern characters that, up until now, have gotten by on name recognition alone from diehard Marvel Universe fanboys. Sure, we knew a bit about Johansson’s The Black Widow thanks to Whendon’s work in The Avengers, but she still acted as more of a pretty face and a fit body filling out a skin-tight jumpsuit than a properly developed member of the eccentric fighting force. She was simply riding a wave of voluptuous sex appeal before this entry came along. And then there is Jackson’s Nick Fury, another member that has acted as the one-dimensional link between Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Captain America. Here, we finally get a bit of backstory on the trench coat-clad S.H.I.E.L.D. director, and we are even given a chance to peak behind the famous eye patch.
As far as the character of Steve Rogers aka Captain America goes, he’s still a good deal of fun as he tries to bring himself up to our modern times. In between working his way through his list of music to listen to, movies to see, and various other fun facts to brush up on, he wrestles with the post-9/11 world in which we now live. No longer do our enemies wear uniforms or clearly identify themselves. Instead, they lurk in plain sight, acting as an ally before dealing a cataclysmic and calculated blow. Even more perplexing to the Cap is the way S.H.I.E.L.D. now plans on dealing with these emerging threats—neutralizing them before they even occur. “I thought the punishment came after the crime?,” he asks. If only things were that easy! It’s a mature thrill to watch Cap pull back the layers of filth and corruption around him, and it’s an even bigger thrill to hear him remind us that sometimes you need a bit of old fashioned to combat these new threats. And then there is Mackie’s Wilson aka Falcon, a courageous war hero who is willing to stand proudly next to the Cap, no matter how dangerous the situation may be. He may not have the abilities that Rogers has, but when he straps on that wicked jet pack and flies into battle with barely any armor to protect him from the bullets and bombs exploding around him, you want to stand up and cheer.
The most surprising presence in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is none other than Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, the tough-talking head of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s best not to reveal too terribly much about his character, but his inclusion here makes the ‘70’s political thriller echoes ring just a little bit louder than they already do. It’s a welcome surprise to see Redford jumping into the realm of escapism, and he seems to be thoroughly enjoying every single second of his role. Probably the most hit-or-miss character here is none other than The Winter Solider, the mysterious bad guy with a buzzing metal arm and dark hair hanging in his face. For those who are only familiar with Captain America through his rollicking cinematic adventures, I won’t ruin the big reveal about his character, but what I will tell you is that his character’s full potential is never fully reached. He’s certainly a formidable villain as he jumps, kicks, and shoots at the Cap and his sidekicks, but we just don’t get enough of the powerful assassin. His relegation to a secondary foe is a bit of a letdown, but rest assured that there is plenty of emotional weight behind his fiery final showdown with Rogers.
With all of these juicy characters and the riveting plot taking center stage in The Winter Soldier, we almost forget to stop and admire all the gritty action that explodes with hair-raising strength. This time around, we get a nifty, Captain Phillips-esque hostage situation that lashes out with brutal fury as the Cap and his team execute strategic moves to diffuse the situation. There is also my personal favorite, the highway gun battle centerpiece, a sequence that roars with danger and destruction as cars explode, Gatling guns spin to life, and the Cap has his first up-close-and-personal encounter with The Winter Soldier. And then there is the colossal aerial finale that boasts tumbling gunships, even more gunfights, breathtaking fistfights, and a heaping pile of destruction. Trust me, folks, it’s an absolute doozy that leaves you gasping for air. Overall, Captain America: The Winter Soldier marks a new high for Marvel Studios. It’s a brainy superhero adventure that doesn’t even dream of skimping on expert storytelling, captivating character development, or high-stakes action. It’s downright impossible to walk away without wanting more of Captain America.
by Steve Habrat
Did you ever think that Ben “Gigli” Affleck would become a respected Hollywood director who now has three great films under his directing belt? Yeah, I would have never guessed that either, especially after also seeing Reindeer Games and Daredevil. I thought he was doomed for the bargain bin but over the years, he slowly climbed onto the A-list by carefully choosing roles that would repair the damage done to his career by J. Lo and J. Gar. I was seriously impressed with his 2010 Boston heist thriller The Town and left wondering what Mr. Affleck would deliver to us next. Now we have his political/hostage thriller and Hollywood send up Argo, which is based on recently declassified events. Vacillating between chuckle-worthy jabs at Hollywood and their big budget copycat projects and knee-jerking suspense set during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, Affleck smoothly explores jaw-dropping history (with tweaks here and there) while measuring out a pinch of nostalgia for cinema buffs (that retro Warner Bros. logo stamped on the beginning of the movie). Basically, Argo is one of the best films of the year, a real crowd pleaser brimming with starry-eyed jingoism and unmatchable performances that all deserve to be recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They sort of owe Affleck one, especially after overlooking The Town for a Best Picture nomination.
Argo begins on November 4th, 1979, with militants storming the U.S. embassy in Tehran after the U.S. provided shelter for the recently deposed Shah. All the employees inside the embassy are taken hostage but six lucky ones manage to escape to the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Played by Victor Garber). With the group’s safety in question, the U.S. State Department begins devising ways to pull the group out without getting them killed. The State Department calls in Tony Mendez (Played by Ben Affleck), a CIA specialist who has had experience in getting people out of nasty situations. One evening while watching Battle of the Planet of the Apes with his son, Mendez gets the idea to use the story that the group is actually a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film called Argo. After finally convincing his cranky supervisor, Jack O’Donnell (Played by Bryan Cranston), the two get in contact with Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (Played by John Goodman) and sleazy film producer Lester Siegel (Played by Alan Arkin) to help them create a fake movie. As Mendez and his team race to make the Star Wars knockoff seem as authentic as possible, the militants begin to suspect that some of the employees escaped right before the embassy was stormed and they set out to track down every last escapee.
While Argo never does much to really shake the viewer out of the feeling that you’ve seen all of this before in thrillers past, Affleck still gets a free pass with the idea that these events really took place (you can’t deny real life heroics). He may manipulate here and there for effect and granted, it works for dramatics, but it is such a crazy slice of reality that you easily ignore the predictable beat. And while the thrills may be familiar, they feel like they are cranked up to eleven. Affleck’s previous films had plenty of edge-of-your-seat moments and hold-your-breath action and Argo is no different. You’ll tense up every time the film leaves U.S. soil and ventures into chaotic Tehran. Affleck never misses a moment to capture the agony and fear that those six Americans were feeling as they waited for a way out of their extremely dangerous situation. And just wait until the end escape; with Affleck and the shaky six as they march through an airport loaded with steely-eyed guards sniffing out Americans. These scenes are the work of someone who truly understands suspense and how to put the viewer through the ringer. Affleck breaks up this suspense with witty moments of hilarity as Arkin and Goodman deadpan about the Hollywood studio system. The comic moments are a much-needed break from the somber warnings of life and death (bodies hang from cranes in the streets of Tehran, a grim reminder that the stakes are high) and give the film a flamboyant quirk.
Further making Argo a must-see are the performances from the main players, all of which are Oscar worthy, in my humble opinion. Affleck has never been better as the weary CIA escape artist Mendez, who rarely sees his son and turns to a bottle of hard liquor when things aren’t going quite his way. Cranston is his usual rock hard self as he O’Donnell, Mendez’s boss who can unleash fury like you wouldn’t believe when the chips are down. I’m still amazed that Cranston quietly flies under the A-list radar but he manages to do it. I just wonder when this guy is going to explode. Goodman is fantastic as make-up artist Chambers, who squints through oversized glasses and burns through lines like, “So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in!” It is a dream come true when he is paired up with Arkin as the smart aleck film producer Siegel. Arkin doesn’t stray from his usual cranky demeanor and it fits perfectly when he declares, “If I’m gonna make a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit!” His best moment comes when he snarls, “Argo fuck yourself!” Kyle Chandler (King Kong, Super 8) also drops by and really sizzles as Hamilton Jordan, the Chief of Staff to Jimmy Carter. He’s another one, along with Cranston, who is on the verge of really breaking out but just stays low-key.
Argo never ceases to amaze considering all the different styles that Affleck blends together throughout its two-hour runtime. The scenes where Mendez and his team sit inside earth toned government offices and suck on Pall Malls seem like they were ripped out of any political drama from the 1970’s. There is a warm affection for classic science fiction and forgotten B-movies from the mangy days of Hollywood, when trash was king. There is a chilling urgency and grainy realism to the scenes where the Iranian revolutionaries rock the gates to the U.S. embassy before storming over and breaking in. It’s all a bit too unsettling, especially with recently events in Benghazi filling the evening news. Yet nothing clashes in this liberally charged plea for peaceful approaches to violent conflicts. It is a virtually flawless film that leaves you stunned that this outlandish idea actually saved the lives of six Americans. Politics aside, Argo is certainly going to be an awards season darling when the race for Best Picture begins. It is astonishingly consistent (not one scene seems wasted or useless), staggeringly hopeful even in its darkest moments, and beautifully acted at every turn. I can’t wait to see what Affleck does next.