Superhero origin stories have been all the rage at the multiplex this summer with Marvel Comics alone accounting for two such films Thor and X-Men: First Class both of which happily surpassed critics’ expectations. Its latest Captain America: The First Avenger – so named as to provide us a helpful link to the Avengers movie coming next year – arguably faces the trickiest task of all three seeing as how Americans have not been in the most patriotic of moods in recent years. Could a flag-waving superhero really find purchase with a moviegoing audience that increasingly looks askance at such notions?
Surprisingly yes. That Captain America succeeds – and resoundingly so – is partly due to the producers’ decision to set the film during World War II a time where patriotism is a much easier sell. (And no viewer is too jaded to not enjoy seeing Nazis eviscerated en masse.) But proper credit must be given to director Joe Johnston who has crafted a breathlessly entertaining popcorn movie that unambiguously embraces its hero’s old-fashioned sensibilities and invites us to embrace them as well.
Chris Evans (The Losers Fantastic Four) plays Steve Rogers an earnest oft-bullied ectomorph whose lone wish is to ship off to Europe and fight on the front lines. But a plethora of physical ailments have combined to render him hopelessly unfit to serve however stiff his resolve. (To pull off the withered look of “Skinny Steve ” the filmmakers pulled off a nifty trick grafting Evans’ head onto the body of another actor Leander Neely.)
Rogers’ chance arrives in the guise of a government scientist the German émigré Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci as avuncular as a German-accented man can hope to be) who witnesses the young man’s idealistic ardor and recruits him to take part in secret military experiment. After proving his mettle in training Rogers is delivered a dose of Super Serum a PED that instantly makes him bigger stronger and faster than just about any other human alive.
Which is a good thing because on the other side of the Atlantic a renegade Nazi scientist Johann Schmidt aka the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving doing a tremendous Christoph Waltz impression) has happened upon his own supernatural power source and he’s used it to quietly amass a private army dubbed HYDRA that is bent on supplanting Hitler’s world-domination scheme with its own. Soon all that stands between defeat at the hands HYDRA and its arsenal of advanced weaponry is the juiced-up visage of the newly-christened Captain America.
Portraying a stalwart straight-arrow bereft of angst or ambiguity isn’t the easiest of tasks for any actor but Evans does a commendable job of bringing depth and humanity to a character that all too easily could have come across as bland and one-dimensional. Johnston seems to recognize this potentiality as he looks primarily to his supporting cast to supply the personality: Tucci and Weaving stand out as do Tommy Lee Jones and Toby Jones playing an irascible army commander and a timid HYDRA toady respectively. The film’s romantic spark comes courtesy of the principal cast’s lone female representative the excellent Haley Atwell playing Rogers’ military liaison Agent Peggy Carter.
More than anything Captain America is a triumph of tone. A former ILM technician Johnston did visual effects for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Spielberg’s 1981 blockbuster was a conscious touchstone for his film’s throwback feel and aesthetic. (Another less deliberate influence would be a previous Johnston film The Rocketeer.) Captain America embodies the spirit of the old serials melded with a tongue-in-cheek comic sense and punctuated by action sequences that deploy the requisite CGI fireworks with a welcome measure of restraint. The film is decidedly of its era but never feels gratuitously nostalgic. And its production design is gorgeous: Red Skull’s lair in particular is a treasure trove of retro-futurist designs all of which seem directly lifted from 1940s World’s Fair exhibits.
In Unknown a generic conspiracy thriller from director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan House of Wax) the protagonist played by Liam Neeson emerges from a four-day coma to find himself in the midst of a kind of reverse-identity crisis: He’s fairly certain who he is but everyone else around him seems to have forgotten as if they’ve contracted a kind of collective amnesia. The filmmakers hope dearly that this amnesia will extend to the audience that you won’t remember the Bourne trilogy The Fugitive or any number of other thrillers from which Unknown borrows heavily. Its main strategy for achieving this is to churn out action-thriller clichés at such a breathless pace that you won’t pause to ponder the film’s unoriginality.
Moments after arriving in Berlin for a biotech conference world-class botanist Martin Harris (Neeson) nearly dies in a traffic accident. Stranded in a foreign country without any form of identification he angrily asserts to everyone he encounters he is “Martin Harris Doctor Martin Harris ” to which he mainly receives puzzled looks from confused Teutons. Events take a more sinister turn when even his wife Elizabeth (Mad Men’s January Jones)* claims not to recognize him and another man purporting to be Martin Harris takes his place by her side.
Is this all some elaborate ruse or just the after-effects of the car accident? As Martin (Neeson’s version) probes the mystery of his lost identity he becomes enveloped in a grand conspiracy involving agribusiness conglomerates Arab sheiks a beautiful Bosnian immigrant (Diane Kruger) a sickly ex-Stasi member (Bruno Ganz) and a pair of stereotypically menacing German hitmen. The film’s setup is intriguing and its plot features a few clever twists but for the most part it's a predictable affair and one which gradually loses its grip on reality. As a piece of mindless entertainment Unknown has its moments – there are a handful of well-choreographed action sequences including the obligatory urban car chase – just don’t try to engage it on a logical level or you might end up in a coma yourself.
*I thought for sure Jones' character would at some point be revealed as an android but alas I was wrong.
In order to save the life of her father an ex-mountain climber who needs a very expensive operation to repair an old spinal injury not covered by insurance 12-year-old Maddy (Kristen Stewart) a budding rock climber herself gets the idea to rob a bank for the money. Not just any bank mind you but the same one for which her mother (Jennifer Beals) has just designed a high-tech security system and the same one that refused to lend money to Maddy's family for Dad's operation. Ah so it's about a worthy cause and it's a revenge plot. Along with her climbing skills which she'll have to use in order to scale the 100-foot vault Maddy also enlists the help of her two best friends--the mechanically gifted Gus (Max Thieriot) and Austin (Corbin Bleu) a computer whiz and future film director. As the trio try to pull off the seemingly foolproof heist things don't go necessarily to plan (big surprise) and the kids must face the repercussions. Maybe it would have been easier if they just put on a musical show in the barn where neighbors could generously contribute to the "Let's Fix Dad" fund.
Catch's saving grace is the kids--Stewart Thieriot and Bleu are instantly likable. As the veteran of the trio Stewart (Panic Room) infuses Maddy with the right amount of empathy and determination while newcomers Thieriot and Bleu deliver charming performances not only as Maddy's friends but as her would-be suitors as well. The little competition between the two for her affection is sweet and unassuming and about the only compelling aspect to the story. As far as the adults in the film most fall into stereotypical roles. Michael Des Barres (Man From Elysian Fields) plays the megalomaniac president of the bank á la It's A Wonderful Life's evil Mr. Potter; Beals is Maddy's workaholic mother who promises to spend more time with her daughter while Sam Robards is the free-spirited dad waiting for his kid to save the day. And let's not forget a sadomasochistic yet bumbling bank security guard (James Le Gros) who "knows NUTHING!" about how to stop some wily kids from breaking into the vault. Borrring.
Catch That Kid is actually a remake of the 2002 Danish film Klatretøsen which is one of the country's more successful films a kid's version of the slick Ocean's Eleven. Doing a remake probably looked good on paper. After all bank heists are still considered the classier of crimes (providing no one gets hurt) stealing all that insurable cash from greedy financial institutions--and seeing kids do it would be fascinating. Unfortunately Catch fails to recognize its own potential. Screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas instead concoct the far-fetched plot so Maddy would have to have a good reason to commit the crime and indie director Bart Freundlich (World Traveler) doesn't even come close to capturing Ocean's Eleven's spirited fun and cleverness. There's no thrill. The kids show no joy in their high-tech and physical capabilities. They just dutifully plod through their mission. Even in trying to emulate the ultra-cool gadget-filled Spy Kids the film ultimately falls short in firing up the audience's imagination.