July 25, 2011

MOVIES: Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011)

Virtue is a lot harder for an actor to play than vice, which is part of what makes Chris Evans' performance in Captain America such a delight. Evans plays Steve Rogers, a kid who desperately wants to enlist in the military during World War II, but keeps getting rejected for not being up to military standards. (The CGI that's used to make Evans look short and scrawny is very impressive.) He's recruited by a military scientist (Stanley Tucci, having a ball with an appropriately comic-book German accent and Einstein hair) for an experimental project that turns him into a tall, muscular super-soldier who will become Captain America. (And I do mean muscular. As in yummy yummy yummy I want that for Christmas.)

Steve/Captain America is all virtue. He's kind, sensible, intelligent, charming, polite, and above all, decent in a way that seems to have gone out of fashion these days. (It's going to be very interesting to see the character in the current era when The Avengers arrives next summer.) He's a guy who could easily come across as a simpering goody-two-shoes, someone we'd all instantly hate, but Evans makes him both believable and likable. It's a performance that won't get nearly the attention it deserves.

On the villain side, the movie makes the smart move of avoiding all the potential poor-taste pitfalls of making Hitler the bad guy in a silly comic book movie by creating a secondary threat. Hugo Weaving plays the German scientist who has broken away from Hitler's research team to create his own private army, and Toby Jones is perfectly sycophantic as his chief henchman. Also giving fine performances are Tommy Lee Jones, deliciously droll as Captain America's commanding officer, and Hayley Atwell, all feistiness and spunk as a British intelligence officer who becomes Steve's romantic interest.

The effects are well done, the period look of the movie is right on target, and the action scenes are thrilling; a climactic scene set on Weaving's airplane hits just the right note of giddy comic-book implausibility. You even get a top-notch song as part of a sequence in which Captain America is forced to tour with a USO troupe to sell war bonds. Alan Menken wrote "Star Spangled Man," and it is a precise evocation of the 40s musical style; I wouldn't be surprised to see it on Oscar's Best Song list.

If you enjoy this sort of movie at all, Captain America is a must-see.

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