Thursday, July 28, 2011

Captain America: As Good As It Gets

The word “good” in the title of this review describes not only the movie Captain America, but the character of its hero Steve Rogers. Believe it or not, this is a war movie about decency, and it’s playing a totally different game from not only every other comic book movie you’ve seen, but every other war movie as well. At heart, this is a clear-eyed mash note to the best of what America stands for, which in this movie is epitomized, in a quiet scene between an immigrant who lives in Queens and a kid who comes from Brooklyn, by the single line: “I don’t like bullies.” It’s America as the little guy who stands up for what’s right because that’s what you do, even if you get knocked down or kicked around because of it. A little guy who, when he gets great power, understands implicitly that the use of that power comes with great responsibility.

Remember how Christopher Reeve nailed the goodness of Superman without making him a goody-two-shoes? Chris Evans does the same with Steve Rogers.  He's morally simple and yet still compelling.  Part of it is due to the actor’s reserve, which is a word I never thought I would say about Chris Evans as an actor.  Part of it is due to the writing, which is solid and smart.  But a great deal of it, I think, is due to the stunning special effect of morphing Evans’ face onto a scrawny pre-Cap body,  which is probably the best character use of a special effect I’ve ever seen.  If you’re going to spend millions of dollars in special effects, this is how best to do it--as an investment in humanity, not robotics (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay).  Because you buy Steve Rogers as a 98-pound weakling, and because you care about what he stands for even when he’s too weak to put up a good fight for it, you’re invested in him and his concerns when he CAN fight.  And, weirdly enough, because that scrawny Brooklyn kid is so believable, it’s the bulked-up Chris Evans who looks like the special effect.

I could go on and on, but this is one of those movies you need to see for yourself, so we can talk about it afterwards.  Some high points:  it's one of the best things Tommy Lee Jones has done since Men In Black, mostly because the writers have given him Tommy Lee Jones things to say. Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Erskine is a study in quiet authority--but then all the main characters have it, even Dominic Cooper as the Howards Hughes version of Howard Stark.
There's a clever Gordian knot moment.  There’s a throwaway line that points to Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s a live-action version of the cover of Captain America #1, where Cap slugs Hitler. (There’s even a cameo of the actual Captain America #1.) Plus there’s a poignant echo to the opening sequence of the Pressberger/Powell film A Matter Of Life And Death*, with the nationalities reversed, and don't you think it wasn't deliberate. 

The only misstep (in my opinion) is at the very end, where what should have been the post-trailer teaser is made part of the pre-credits film itself. That’s just a guess on my part, but I feel in my gut that Johnston’s teaser got bumped back into the actual movie to make room for the Avengers teaser that’s there now.

And speaking of mash notes, here's one to Hayley Atwell, who takes the less out of Thankless Love Interest. Her character, Peggy Carter, is another rarity in this kind of movie--a woman who is smart, capable, beautiful, and--don't all have a heart attack at once, people--she’s respected.  When was the last time you ever saw the female lead in an action movie honestly treated with respect by her peers?  Or even by the script?  Except for her opening scene, where she puts a bully in his place, nobody once questions the fact that Carter deserves to be where she is, or that she's competent at what she does.  To me, the sight of this woman advancing shoulder-to-shoulder with an infantry assault was like getting the answer to a question I never knew I was asking.  "Now THAT is how you do it," I said to myself.  I said that a lot while watching this movie, but never louder than here.

Two other things about this character.
1.  She LOOKS 1940’s. Her hair is parted off-center, and her lipstick is just that little bit too red that women thought was fashionable back then, like they were making themselves up for a black-and-white movie. 

2.  To show you how much thought went into this film, remember the trailer scene where Agent Carter tests Cap’s shield by firing a bunch of bullets at it? There’s actually a WHY to this--it’s not an action moment; it’s a character moment. The whole movie is like that. It has just as many down-time quiet scenes as every other action movie, because we all need to see a lull between explosions--but all these lulls in the action are well-written and well-acted, so they mean something. You never find yourself looking at your watch, like you did every time Hal Jordan was talking to Carol Ferris in Green Lantern.

So go see this movie. I guarantee you'll be more than pleasantly surprised at how good it is, and you might even walk out of it the way I did, feeling energized and exhilarated.

As my friend Jay said after the film, “This is exactly the movie that character deserves.”

*Also known in this country as Stairway To Heaven, and available here at Amazon.  If you have never seen it, you must.  There is nothing like it.  Talk about movies that play a different game.

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