Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Rating: ****
Release Date: 4/4/14
Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, cameos by Emily VanCamp, Cobie Smulders, Jenny Agutter, Haley Atwell, Stan Lee

A delightfully fun action film that's both brilliantly exhilarating and maddeningly frustrating. As is the current trend with Marvel Studios, "The Winter Soldier" weaves itself into the existing franchise continuity and is a natural extension of Joss Whedon's masterful "The Avengers" (2012). Unfortunately, it falls a bit short of true greatness due to weak writing, poor direction, lousy editing, and infuriatingly sloppy camera work.

Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is still trying to figure out his place in the modern world, and finds himself at odds with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the questionable inner workings of S.H.I.E.L.D. But when S.H.I.E.L.D. becomes compromised by enemy forces, Rogers and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) find themselves branded as traitors and on the run from their former friends and allies. They find a new friend in army veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), and together they try to clear their names and set things right. Naturally, there are lots of super heroics on display, and lots of things are magnificently destroyed. Rogers also meets his match when he comes face-to-face with a ghost from his past - the enigmatic Winter Soldier.

While the action scenes are excellently staged and choreographed, they suffer from some of the worst camera work and editing I've seen in recent years. Along with the annoying industry standard queasy-cam, the fight scenes are particularly frustrating because the action is almost completely obscured. The camera simply can't keep up with the frenetic action, which is further spoiled by rapid machine gun editing. On the plus side, watching Captain America in motion is pure acrobatic poetry, and it's still amazing to me that such a silly character can be so effectively legitimized on film. Chris Evans's performance is spot on, and you can really feel the burden he carries and see it reflected in his troubled eyes. His scene with Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell) is especially heartbreaking. Anthony Mackie is quite charming and a welcome addition to the cast as Falcon. There is huge potential for evolving his character. Unfortunately, Scarlett Johansson gives a dull and lifeless performance as Black Widow this time around, which is a disappointment. You can catch momentary glimpses of brilliance from her here and there, but most of the time she just fumbles around looking dazed and confused. She's also strapped with the worst dialog in the movie, which further undermines her character. Cobie Smulders returns in a small and easily forgettable cameo as Maria Hill, which is disappointing considering how awesome she was in "The Avengers." It's like the writers and directors (yes, there were multiple directors) didn't have a clue about what to do with the female characters.

On the plus side, Emily VanCamp looks very cute with a gun, and Jenny Agutter pulls off the film's greatest moment. Unfortunately, the shear excitement of this scene turned into disappointment only a few seconds later when the charade was exposed. And that's really my biggest take away from the film - it's a constant mess of intermingling excitement and disappointment that can't seem to rise above its genre trappings. The writing is formulaic and predictable to a fault, laden with offensively juvenile dialog and offering no surprises (apart from Ms. Agutter). Unfortunately, for the sake of drama and tension, the bad guys are incredibly stupid, which is the only reason the good guys manage to live as long as they do. While it strives to be in the same vein as "The Avengers", it lacks the honesty, subtlety, and sincerity that made that film so great. But that doesn't keep it from being extremely fun and entertaining. As long as you can overlook the poor writing and frustrating camera work, "The Winter Soldier" is a non-stop thrill ride that's easily the best Marvel outing to date outside of "The Avengers", and another step in the right direction for Marvel Studios.