The superhuman efforts director Joe Johnston made to persuade Chris Evans to re-enlist in the comic book movie universe as "Captain America" pay more dividends in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."
Evans, that perfect specimen of American manhood, really sells the earnestness, the dry wit, the sense of duty and righteousness of the icon of American values that he represents in this sequel, even if Johnston isn't around to direct it.
And it's great that "The Winter Soldier" is actually about something, a comic book spin on privacy and civil liberties issues straight out of today's data mining headlines. It's a freedom vs. fear movie, liberty vs. "order."
There are clever ways the story folds back into the first "Captain America" film's world, great effects and a retro-future tech that is fascinating.
But "The Winter Soldier" lacks that lump-in-the-throat heart that Evans, Johnston and company brought to the first "Captain America." The co-directors of "You, Me and Dupree," Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, serve up a pretty generic sequel, with inconsequential villains and predictable flourishes, an epic whose epic effects lack grandeur.
From its quasi-fascist logo and overly-imposing D.C. headquarters to the Stalinesque uniform that Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) sports, S.H.I.E.L.D. ("Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate" in the comics) is plainly a multi-national agency that's reaching beyond its "fight evil, protect Earth" mandate. Robert Redford plays Alexander Pierce, the fellow who lords over the directorate of this ever-burgeoning security empire.
Nick Fury barely has time to fret over the idea that "to build a really better world, sometimes that means you have to tear the old one down," when he's attacked. The Captain, Steve Rogers (Evans), and Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) set out to unravel this mystery, who the new menace is and what the enemy's masked "Winter Soldier" super-warrior has in his bag of tricks.
Johansson, who has no hint of a Russian accent this time (not a bad move, considering how Russians are regarded this spring), makes an apt, super-sexy sparring partner for the Captain.
She's constantly suggesting he get back on the dating scene -- in between epic brawls with legions of foes. Not that the Captain doesn't notice women -- his nurse-neighbor, for instance (Emily VanCamp).
The fights are spectacular combinations of digitally augmented stunt-work. The directors and screenwriters find all manner of new ways for the Captain's shield to pay off, and Evans and Johansson make these shooting, strangling punch-outs cool.
Anthony Mackie shows up as a potential new sidekick, which only calls attention to the question, "Hey, where are Captain America's OTHER Avenger pals in this hour of crisis?"
The best new effect is a holographic teleconference involving Redford (fairly bland in this part) and the other governing execs of S.H.I.E.L.D. Worst cameo is Garry Shandling, as a senator who apparently has been using Kim Novak's botox team.
And that message -- that we're more likely to give up our freedoms by consent than by force -- is not a bad one to hammer home.
But "The Winter Soldier" has long, talky, dead stretches. It's emotionally flat, a lot closer to Evans' "Fantastic Four" films or the "Thor" sequel than it is to "Captain America: The First Avenger," or "The Avengers."
It's OK for April, in other words, but not up to the higher standards of a Marvel summer blockbuster.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
2.5 stars (Grade: C-plus)
Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, scripted by Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus. A Marvel Studios/Disney release.
Running time: 2:16
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout