Steve Rogers stares dumbfounded at the gargantuan aircraft carriers, their shiny weaponry ready for deployment. His superior, the eyepatch-sporting badass who might just go all Snakes on a Plane at the drop of a dime, assures him they’ll save countless lives. “This isn’t freedom, it’s fear,” argues Rogers, his baby blues clouded with genuine concern.
Paranoia, to be more specific. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the latest entry in the Marvel Universe franchise, might look and sound like popcorn entertainment, but it’s got a slightly more ambitious agenda than its predecessor, Joe Johnston’s endearingly retro Captain America: The First Avenger. The new film finds Rogers, played once again by Chris Evans, struggling to adapt to a modern world in which he simply doesn’t see himself. It’s been two years since some huge scaly creatures from outer space – that’s the Chitauri for all you comic book geeks out there – wreaked havoc on New York City, a battle depicted with crowd-pleasing gusto by Joss Whedon in The Avengers, but the ensuing fame has not helped Rogers become acclimated with the 21st Century. Beneath his chiseled exterior, Steve remains the idealistic 90-pound shrimp who wound up with a buff bod and accompanying super-strength after agreeing to become a government guinea pig back in 1942.
And now, to top it all off, S.H.I.E.L.D., the spy agency that woke Rogers up after a decades-long Arctic slumber, prepares to unveil this line of “Helicarriers.” Operation: Insight, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) calls it. The Cap does not approve. Not one bit. Rogers barely has time to process what he’s just witnessed before some trigger-happy baddies, spearheaded by a stealthy, masked stranger, attempt to take out a S.H.I.E.L.D. member. (The Winter Soldier‘s plot is particularly spoiler-prone, so I promise to tread carefully.) All of a sudden, Rogers finds himself on the run, a man falsely accused of a heinous crime by the very people who called him a colleague. If fans of 70s American cinema are experiencing déjà vu, that’s because the film is meant to evoke that decade’s political thrillers. (Think The Parallax View with explosions.) Directors Anthony and Joe Russo (Welcome to Collinwood) fuse 3 Days of the Condor‘s trust-no-one intrigue with some of Christopher Nolan’s muscular Dark Knight imagery. To drive home the reference, they’ve cast Condor‘s leading man, Robert Redford, in the pivotal role of S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce, who brands Rogers persona non grata after the superhero refuses to disclose what he knows about the terrorist hit on the agency.
Rogers’ growing frustration with his employer, the fact that he’s been purposefully kept in the dark by the people he’s supposed to trust, mirrors my own misgivings about the Borg-like interconnectedness of the Marvel Movie Universe. The films’ diligence in carrying out housekeeping duties might give fans a collective-unconscious, can’t-wait-to-download-this-movie thrill, but it also prevents them from developing their own personality. It’s an aesthetic crutch, but as the Russos demonstrate, not an insurmountable obstacle. There’s a workmanlike efficiency to the car chases and fight sequences in Captain America: The Winter Soldier – it’s clear the Russos have seen The Raid: Redemption – but even though it might not be the gamechanger its champions would have you believe, the movie is a sturdy do-gooder yarn that raises none-too-subtle questions about how far we’re willing to go in order to avert a threat to our country. The filmmakers’ dependable brand of escapism is accompanied by a sobering reality check.
It all comes back to Rogers and his steadfast values. The Russos shrewdly tap into the character’s willingness to call out authority figures when he feels their integrity has been compromised, as well as his stubborn tendency to see the best in people, even those trying to kill him. The directors also inject humor into the proceedings, and even though some of the jokes land with a thud, they provide much-needed levity to this grimmest of storylines. (Zack Snyder, take note. It doesn’t all have to be gloom and doom.) Evans is given a chance to bring nuance and vulnerability to this beacon of goodness, something he never got a chance to do as Johnny Storm in Tim Story’s disposable Fantastic Four movies. He may be easy on the eyes, but this is one costumed patriot whose sex appeal comes from within.
Marvel characters are not the only ones experiencing a rough wake-up call at the multiplex. In Sabotage, the latest from law-enforcement chronicler David Ayer (Harsh Times, End of Watch), members of an elite team of Drug Enforcement Agency agents are being bumped off one by one, Ten Little Indians-style, months after they attempted to steal $10 million in blood money during a messy raid at a cartel warehouse.
Who’s behind the grisly executions? Don’t look at John Wharton, aka Breacher, played with effortless charisma by Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’s trying to get to the bottom of this mystery, even though a very frustrated, no-nonsense police detective (Olivia Williams) senses he’s not being upfront about what he does and doesn’t know. Let’s give points to Ayer for integrating women in roles he normally reserves for male characters. (Mireille Enos of AMC’s The Killing plays an agent in Breacher’s unit.) The Training Day screenwriter also pulls off a tense, well-crafted sequence in which Ah-nuld and his team take on some drug thugs at a cartel safe house.
Sabotage is full of gripping isolated moments like that. Alas, they fail to coalesce into a satisfying whole. Ayer has a knack for capturing on-the-job camaraderie and a penchant for injecting laughs into otherwise dry procedurals, a mix he tends to maintaing well-balanced but here comes off as hopelessly schizoid. The film careens from brutal carnage to jokey banter and back again without finding a consistent tone. It’s a shame, since the cast the overqualified supporting cast Ayer has put together, which also includes Josh Holloway, Terrence Howard, Joe Manganiello and Sam Worthington, is all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Ayer piles on the false alarms and double crosses, even going as far as turning the Governator into a modern-day Butch Cassidy in an ending that feels inserted from a different movie. It’s all amusing in fits and starts, but what really stands out as you exit the theater is the way Ayer sabotages Sabotage. He thinks he’s making a drug-war L.A Confidential, but who is he kidding? His self-indulgent flourishes and undisciplined direction cause this blood-soaked whodunit to implode. And he only has himself to blame.
Sabotage is currently showing in wide release. Following a smashing international debut, Captain America: The Winter Soldier starts April 4 in the U.S.