Man, is it refreshing to sit through a big budget summer Hollywood film that is not only a well-crafted and entertaining action flick for all ages, but also an unapologetically, good old-fashioned gung-ho American story.
Captain America: The First Avenger opened last week and if there is any justice in the world it will keep pace with the box office juggernaut that is Harry Potter. Wishful thinking to be sure – Captain America raked in a modest $65m to HP’s $169m (already $357m worldwide – WOW!).
Directed by Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, October Sky, Jurassic Park III), and working from a very intelligent script (Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely), the film manages to be both over the top patriotic and appropriately humble in its bravado.
It is 1942 and the world is at war. Chris Evans (The Losers, Fantastic Four) plays ‘Steve Rogers,’ a scrawny and sickly patriot who wears his heart on his sleeve as he watches his friends enlist to go overseas and fight the Nazis. He is an easy target for local bullies, and after one back alley beat down, his best pal, ‘Bucky’ asks him why he keeps getting up off the mat and asking for more. His simple response: “I hate bullies.”
Over and over we see poor little ‘Steve’ march defiantly up to the draft board, laundry list of health ailments in hand, and repeatedly get stamped “4 F.” Declined five times.
Until…’Dr Abraham Erskine’ observes him forlorn outside a draft office, telling his bosom bud that he “should be going.” He asks ‘Bucky’ (Sebastian Stan) “How can I sit in a factory when there are men laying down their lives?”
‘Dr. Erskine’ (Stanley Tucci – doing a sub par German accent) approaches ‘Steve’ and propositions him on a scientific military experiment that might just change his fortune. “What about the exams?” asks ‘Steve.’ “It’s not the exams,” responds the good doctor. “It’s the five tries.”
“A weak man knows the value of strength and knows compassion,” continues ‘Dr. Erskine’ to the suddenly hopeful runt. “Stay who you are.”
He stamps him “1 A.” Yer in the army now, son.
Captain America: The First Avenger takes its time setting up its story, not always a wise choice for a movie targeted at the immediate gratification demographic. But it pays dividends here as the themes of courage and virtue become firmly cemented while we watch the military training and development of its new weapon – ‘Steve Rogers.’
After some amusing and character-testing moments in basic training we finally get to the moment of scientific transformation, when the diminutive ‘Steve Rogers’ blows up to become buff, booty-kicking ‘Captain America.’
It’s a great scene that contains both American innovative optimism and self-effacing humor.
“How do you feel?” asks ‘Dr. Erskine’ once ‘Steve’ steps from the growth chamber, sweaty and chiseled. “Taller,” responds the bewildered soldier.
Then the moment that told me this script and this story was headed in the right direction.
“This is the first step on the path to peace,” exclaims ‘Dr. Erskine’ to the attending military brass.
The film makes a shrewd choice in steering away from the obvious and easy choice of targeting Adolf Hitler and his goons, instead focusing American might on defeating a mad German scientist who has assembled a new wing of zealots faithful to his vision of world dominance.
Hugo Weaving of The Matrix fame, wickedly plays ‘Dr. Johann Schmidt’ (aka ‘Red Skull’), mastermind of the wicked science lab “Hdyra.” Weaving’s evil doctor is the classic cinema villain, delusional as all get out and hellbent on ruling the world. As Tommy Lee Jones’ ‘Colonel Philips’ says of him “He thinks he’s a God and he’s willing to blow up half the world to prove it.”
So instead of “Heil Hitler!” we get “Hail Hydra.” It works.
Captain America: The First Avenger works on every level. The action is well-paced and well-executed with seamless special fx, the dialogue is crisp and wisely nostalgic, the love story (Hayley Atwell) is wholesome and sweet as apple pie, and the clarity of vision and virtue is refreshingly on display from beginning to end.
For my money, the best takeaway? Captain America is neither nation builder nor imperialist, he just hates bullies.