Having weathered a 70-year ice nap and then the big Chitauri war in The Avengers two years ago, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the shield-wielding Captain America, is back in Washington, D.C., on-call for whatever's going to happen next. As you can imagine, it happens pretty fast.
The first Captain America movie had classic comic-book trappings—an otherworldly Tesseract, a hyper-Nazi madman called the Red Skull. The Winter Soldier brings Rogers completely into the present day, and you can guess how he might feel about the current wave of rampaging statism—the domestic data mining, the government drones, the metastasizing claims of national security. The Captain has an uncomplicated retro-patriotism—he's a World War II throwback with a simple devotion to his country, not to one or another faction of the political clown corps that's wrecking it. So he's an ideal man to have around not only when bad guys need taking down, but when the good guys suddenly seem to have gone bad themselves.
The bad guys here at first seem to be a crew of Algerian sky pirates (just go with it) who've hijacked an airship belonging to S.H.I.E.L.D., the elite government espionage outfit run by one-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Rogers is re-teamed with fellow Avenger Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), the Black Widow, to re-take the stolen vessel and to retrieve some highly classified S.H.I.E.L.D. intelligence plans stored onboard. After a burst of epic butt-kicking, they subdue the pirates; but the intel, when returned to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters in a flash drive, turns out to be so ultra-hush that not even Fury can access it.
This is very suspicious ("Trust no one," Fury says), especially in view of an expansive new national-surveillance program that's about to be launched. It's called Project Insight, and it involves the deployment of three huge helicarriers that will patrol the country from above, sucking up personal data about unwitting citizens and identifying "threats" before they've actually threatened anyone. The carriers are equipped with formidable weaponry that, as Fury explains to Rogers, can wipe out a thousand miscreants per minute—all in the name of safeguarding a free America. Rogers is appalled. "This isn't freedom," he says. "This is fear."
The only person capable of delaying Project Insight is Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), head of the World Security Council (uh oh) and one of Fury's oldest friends. Pierce is uninclined to postpone the project's inception, however, and soon Fury is running for his life, pursued by the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a mysterious cyber-warrior with a metal arm who has been offing important people for the last 50 years. (Comics adepts will already be aware who this character really is; moviegoers will learn soon enough.)
The script, by returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, sets up plenty of action, and new directors Joe and Anthony Russo stage it with an emphasis on rousing stuntwork, along with the usual digital spectacle. There's a wall-slamming confrontation in a cramped elevator and a long freeway destruct-a-thon that's pretty wild even by the long-established standards of the movie car-chase. Also on hand is Rogers' new buddy Sam Wilson (MVP Anthony Mackie), an ex-vet code-named the Falcon, who cruises through the action on rocket-powered wings.
The movie has more of an emotional kick than the first film, too. Natasha is increasingly burdened by her violent backstory, which began in the bad old KGB days. Rogers still mourns the loss of a lifelong friend in the long-ago war; and in the movie's most moving interlude, he pays a visit to a nursing home to see his '40s girlfriend, the now elderly Peggy Carter (a touching cameo by a convincingly aged Hayley Atwell).
If Winter Soldier pales a bit in comparison to the first Captain America film, that may be due to the colorless quality of its designated villains. As the star of such '70s classics as Three Days of the Condor and All the President's Men, Redford of course brings considerable paranoid-thriller cred to the role of a devious one-world bureaucrat. But in terms of pure-pulp evil, his Alexander Pierce is no match for Hugo Weaving's raving Red Skull. And despite his deadly cyber arm, the grim Winter Soldier is a little drab as well.
Still, it's fun to once again watch Captain America taking on America's enemies, however earthbound they may be this time. "The price of freedom is always high," he says, "but it's a price I'm willing to pay." No charge, Captain.