“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” gives super-hero sequels a good name.  Not only is this $170 million blockbuster far better than its superb ‘origins’ predecessor, but it also is a real game-changer for the Marvel Universe.  Former “Fantastic Four” actor Chris Evans reprises the title role as Steve Rogers, a 90-pound weakling turned 240-pound heavyweight, whose exploits inspired millions in World War II.  Remember Rogers spent about 70 years in suspended animation in an iceberg after he contributed to the defeat the Nazis as well as Hydra.  Rogers maintains his sense of honor, or naivety, throughout all his trials and tribulations.  Evans makes his old-fashioned, nice-guy antics appear both convincing and charming.  Meaning, Captain America remains essentially a goody-two-shoes-bachelor with-a-shield.  Our hero takes a licking but keeps on ticking despite whatever adversaries he tangles with in the second, in-name-only theatrical “Captain America” feature.  Co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo of “You, Me and Dupree” let the action coast occasionally in this larger-than-life, two-hour-and-sixteen minute melodrama, but the combat scenes are staged with so much kinetic artistry that you will teeter on the edge of your seat during them.  Everything is still appropriately formulaic but entirely outlandish in the gravity-defying Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely screenplay that puts our hero early and often behind the eight ball.  My favorite close-quarters combat encounter occurs in the elevator with our hero cornered and outnumbered.  Later scraps on the three Helicarriers emerge as no less electrifying.  Predictably, everything is business as usual, but the Russo brothers and their scribes provide enough twists and turns to keep you interested in this noisy nonsense.  Mind you, one or two things won’t register as total surprises because you know some characters cannot perish.  Nevertheless, if you enjoyed the first “Captain America” with Chris Evans, you will probably love the second one as much if not more!

In terms of a chronological timeline, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” takes place two years after the cataclysmic New York showdown, but the action itself covers only three days.  Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) hasn’t totally acclimated himself to the 21st century, but he refuses to let it interfere with his duty.  While jogging around Washington, D.C., the fleet-footed Rogers befriends congenial Air Force flyboy Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie of “Notorious”) who counsels veterans suffering from PTSD at the VA Hospital.  No sooner have they gotten acquainted than Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson of “The Avengers”) rolls up to whisk Rogers off onto his next dangerous mission.  Later, Sam Wilson joins Rogers in his capacity as the winged hero Falcon.  The first major action scene in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is designed to show how extraordinary our eponymous hero is under fire but also how vulnerable he remains.  Terrorists have stormed a S.H.I.E.L.D. surveillance ship, and they are issuing outrageous demands for the release of the hostages.  Actually, this predicament reminded me of the first mission that Stallone and company embarked on in the initial “Expendables” epic.  Mind you, Captain America and his trusty boomerang shield clear the perimeter so Black Widow and Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo of “End of Watch”) can free the hostages and settle with the terrorists.  However, more than meets the eye occurs during this seemingly simple mission, and Captain America confronts his superior, S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nicholas Fury (Samuel L. Jackson of “Pulp Fiction”), about Black Widow’s cyber-exploit.  No sooner have Rogers and Fury fussed at each other at the sprawling new island headquarters of S.H.I.E.L.D. than Fury briefs Rogers about the next best thing.  Project Insight will link three Helicarriers via spy satellites and to eradicate preemptively any threats either domestic or otherwise.  Naturally, Captain America doesn’t like Insight.  If he is shocked that things have changed so much that such a measure must be taken, he is even more shocked later when Fury shows up at his apartment with blood on his hands and an assassin lurking nearby.  Of course, D.C. Police are nowhere to be found when these imposters do everything except blast holes in either the engine block or the tires of his fortified SUV during a tense auto chase through D.C. streets.  If this weren’t enough for Captain America, he must go toe-to-toe with a mysterious combatant with a “Six Million Dollar Man” arm to save the day.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” makes several references to the previous film that strengthens its bond with it.  We get a glimpse of the girl that Steve loved and we watch as Steve’s best friend, Bucky Barnes, contends with amnesia.  The filmmakers not only bring us up to date about Bucky, but also we lern more about renegade enemy scientist Dr. Arnim Zola who collaborated with the Red Skull in the first “Captain America.”  Furthermore, Zola opts to become a ‘ghost-in-the machine’ like Johnny Depp in “Transcendence.”  The Russos and their writers keep hurling obstacles into Captain America’s path, and our hero doesn’t have an easy time conquering the villains.  Anthony Mackie gets to play the first African-American Marvel super hero, and he attacks the role with relish.  He wears a sophisticated set of mechanical wings that enable him to fly and perform far-fetched feats.  Scarlett Johansson is just as tough and sexy as she was in “The Avengers.”  Meanwhile, the best special effect in this special effects extravaganza isn’t a special effect.  Actor Robert Redford proves computer graphics stand no chance against the real thing.  Redford qualifies as the most distinguished silver-screen good guy to cavort in such a dastardly manner since Henry Fonda in Sergio Leone’s western “Once Upon A Time in the West.”  If you’ve never seen Redford in action, you owe it to yourself to check him out.  By his presence alone, Redford makes this action-adventure opus into a memorable experience.  Let’s hope that Marvel Studios can keep up with good work with the forthcoming “Avengers: Age of Ultron” in 2015.

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