Give this to the films of the "Marvel Cinematic Universe": they have a consistency of quality. By treating their comic-book-derived films more as regular "issues" than film events, Marvel may never produce a film as great as "The Dark Knight," but it'll never sink to a low like "Batman and Robin" either. And there we have "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," a perfectly creditable comic-book adventure that likewise feels naggingly rote, stitched together from a mess of old plot parts.
Sequel to both 2011's "Captain America: The First Avenger" and 2012's "The Avengers," "The Winter Soldier" follows thawed-out WWII-era hero Steve Rogers (stalwart Chris Evans) as he deals with 21st-century breakdowns of all varieties. On the surface, this sequel -- scripted by the first film's Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, and directed by franchise newcomers Anthony and Joe Russo -- takes a bold approach by playing that old spy-movie game "Who Do You Trust?" with the players in espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D.
When (too-)mysterious assassin the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) targets S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Captain America finds himself a fugitive from his government masters, including World Security Council insider Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). Cap's only orders? Trust no one. Somewhat reluctantly, Rogers teams up with kick-ass S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), a.k.a. Black Widow, and their new Army vet buddy Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), known to comics fans as the Falcon. Together, they'll get to the bottom of the conspiracy, take down the Winter Soldier, and restore order.
That matters don't go according to plan occasionally, if disingenuously, resembles a tear-down of S.H.I.E.L.D., which makes for short-term excitement despite serving long-term plot service. Since this is a Marvel movie, it's full of close combat and big-scale action, the heavy-metal mayhem culminating in a climactic action sequence involving the latest wave of S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarriers. At least for its first half, "The First Avenger" did a brilliant job of grounding its story in character beats. The sequel proves considerably less adept in this regard, other than kicking around Cap's Rip van Winkle awkwardness a bit (the business involving the titular "Soldier" has a chewy, undercooked texture).
"The Winter Soldier" fares better with its zeitgeist-y theme of secrecy versus transparency, which obliquely (and somewhat miraculously) speaks not only to the "liberties" taken post-Patriot Act, but also to extrajudicial targeted assassination via drone strikes and how the Snowden affair has pressed the point of accountability. Of course, none of these issues are examined in anything like depth; this isn't an Errol Morris film. But it's nevertheless clever to give ultimate patriotic idealist Captain America something of a dark (k)night of the soul in tussling with these modern conflicts.
Casting liberal lion Redford against type as a hawk with his finger on the button works out nicely, and implicitly nods to one of this film's inspirations, the superior "Three Days of the Condor." Pierce and Fury both pour out justifications for allowing righteous men to play God (in a program ironically dubbed Project Insight), but Rogers is having none of it: "This isn't freedom. It's fear." Though "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" never strays far from preposterousness, the picture's real-world implications give its high-flying action at least a tug of gravity