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.
While passing through Cairo during a sabbatical from the priesthood following World War II Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) receives an offer from Semelier Ben Cross) a collector of rare antiquities to join a British archeological excavation in the remote Turkana region of Kenya where a Christian Byzantine church has been unearthed. Although Merrin has lost his religion (he left the church after being forced by the Nazis to commit atrocities against people of his parish) the skilled archeologist accepts the mission out of curiosity: The pristinely preserved church dates back more than 1 000 years before Christianity even reached the East African plain. Once there Merrin anxiously heads to the excavation sight and enters the partially buried church to discover it has been vandalized--or so he thinks; a large wooden cross has been broken and hung upside down. He also encounters Dr. Sarah Novack (Izabella Scorupco) who runs a local hospital and informs the men that the last man in charge of the excavation had gone mad and was now in a sanitarium in Nairobi. The mystery thickens when a local boy Joseph (Remy Sweeney) shows signs of satanic possession. The Turkana blame the mysterious church for the unexplained supernatural activity including a woman's delivery of a Satan-like maggot-covered still born infant. Soon tension mounts between the Turkana and the British troops stationed there.
Poor Skarsgard. To his credit the veteran actor tries his best to add a dash of distinctiveness to his underdeveloped character Father Merrin. Skarsgard (King Arthur) supplies Merrin with an air of attitude a sort of aloofness that screams I don't owe anyone anything. Armed with brute strength and fearlessness (he moves a large concrete slab without breaking a sweat and crawls through unlit basements without ever flinching) Merrin is practically transformed into sexy religious superhero. But Skarsgard even can't escape the silly dialogue that explains what is self-explanatory. "If everyone died who buried them?" Merrin asks aloud outside a cemetery where a plague supposedly whiped out the village's population. Scorupco (Reign of Fire) meanwhile doesn't inject anything extra into her rather forgettable role as Sarah a rather sweet but boring physician. Her metamorphosis in an identical looking Regan MacNeil form the original 1973 Exorcist however pumps some much needed thrills into what's otherwise lackluster horror. One of the most memorable performances comes from Alan Ford (Brick Top Polford form Snatch) who plays a perpetually drunk archeologist with a putrid skin ailment. Ford's rendition of Jeffries is so alarmingly disgusting that it makes Lucifer look like a sweetie pie.
The best thing about Exorcist: The Beginning is its deceptively promising opening set in Africa in the mid 400s. It's an eerie scene bound to make audiences' hair stand on end as a lone bedraggled priest slogs through a dry and dusty plain littered with millions of corpses nailed to upside-down crosses. But in its post-World War II setting the film suffers a setback both in storytelling and visuals. The film was originally directed by Paul Schrader who replaced helmer John Frankenheimer who died before filming began. But producers reportedly thought Schrader's version wasn't frightening enough and handed the reins over to Renny Harlin (Driven) in hopes he would turn out a more spine-chilling rendition. But sadly there is no chilling of the spine to be experienced here. Harlin uses horror film clichés to spook the audience like the faithful light-going-out-in-dark-settings scenario that the film feels more like an episode of Scare Tactics. Harlin's special effects are laugh-out-loud funny too including his inane man-eating CGI hyenas with beaming blue eyes. The beasts move about the screen as if they have no weight or substance to them. What makes those cartoony hyenas even sillier though is the fact that their presence is not needed (they're hardly scary) or even explained which pretty much sums up the film's biggest problem: The spotty story leaves too many questions unanswered. The script credited to Caleb Carr and William Wisher and later revised by Alexi Hawley is so vague it's irritating.