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Cinema Signal: More reasons to like it than not.
. "Captain America: The First Avenger"

For a story about a young man trying to do his bit as a U.S. Army soldier during World War II and being declined as 4-F because of his small stature and a record of pre-existing conditions that Bill Gates couldn't afford to insure, and knowing where this was going, I was reminded of the Oscar-winning CGI effects for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" that so seamlessly aged Brad Pitt from newborn to deathbed. Here was Chris Evans ("X-men") appearing so slight and skinny as Brooklyn boy Steve Rogers, you had to look at him twice to see him once (excuse that -- it's an old Brooklyn gag).

This boy is nothing if not persistent. He attempts to enlist at multiple enlistment stations but meets with the same results: he's 4F and destined to remain nothing more than a truly patriotic civilian. Until, that is, the gods of war smile down on him in the form of Dr. Abraham Erskine, a scientist conducting a secret program (Grizzled Stanley Tucci, "The Lovely Bones") that calls precisely for a guinea pig of Rogers' size, dedication and tactical inventiveness, attributes he has detected in the anxious recruit.

This also brings Rogers to the attention of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell, "The Duchess"), a military attache' to Erskine's project. She develops a kind concern for the skinny washout, and she's sensitive enough to respect his resolve.

Rogers volunteers for Erskine's project, which turns out to be a futuristic machine that will increase a man's size and strength tenfold and turn him into an incredible fighting machine, the better to contend with Nazis. If it succeeds, then Rogers will be the first of many, but destiny leaves Rogers the only specimen for the upgrade.

After a period of being used to as a poster boy for recruitment and war bonds, Rogers goes to war. He must prove himself to the men at the front, however, that he's more than a promotional object. Once he does, and leads men into combat, it turns out that the fight isn't so much against Nazis as against Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving, "The Wolfman"), an egomaniacal monster in Nazi uniform who, with the help of Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones, "City of Ember") develops weapons of immense destructive power for his own glory, not Hitler's.

Tommy Lee Jones ("The Company Men") puts on his gruff personna for the incredulous Colonel Chester Phillips who takes his time converting his initial impressions of short, skinny Rogers from impossible-to-train inductee to impossible-to-ignore Captain America, the hero that Rogers becomes.

But, even this hard-nose comes to realize that his newest soldier is also his country's only hope against the evil tyrant whom we come to know as Red Skull, a man who has his own project. Like ray guns that reduce a man to non-existence in a second.

Once the logic of this fantasy is similarly reduced to acceptance, the effect of making Evans as huge in scale as he is in conviction and heroism. The tide of war is about to change, but Schmidt is a persistent adversary who makes things very difficult. Is our mortal superhero up to the challenge?

Evans, as directed by Joe Johnston ("The Wolfman"), is a study in retro innocence and simplicity. Second on shield-loving Captain America's agenda is to be able to call the elusive government attache' his "girl," as men more or less did in the mid-forties when the real World War II raged on the European continent. But, no worries on that score. This all evolves within a protected circle of the PG-13 rating it gets for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action.

Without that content the film would be left with a shy romance and the digital resizing of the hero, a superb and seamless effect for which I'm sensing an Oscar nom at the very least.

Hayley Atwell, while not at the top of the charts in sensuality and beauty, is attractive enough to pull off an "every soldier's dream girl" presence, with the full, heavily lipsticked lips and generous figure. Hell, who wouldn't be pleased as punch to wind up in her arms?

Jones dresses up the American military with his inimitable character presence even if it is turned down to medium. As for other turns, Tucci's is his usual excellent, with just the right emphasis in the context, and Brit Dominic Cooper of "Tamara Drewe" fame, provides the movie a bit of flashy energy in the supporting role of Erskine's second scientist, Howard Stark.

Weaving's taste for villains is in full flower here, seeing to it that everyone understands how vital the evil boy's threat is to the drama in any genre. He might have stepped off the set of any Marvel Comic movie, and drums up the right amount of madness to ultimately make us squeal with satisfaction when he's squelched.

All in all a grand night out for the teenage fantasy crowd needing a new hero. But even if it feels like air conditioning in the Arctic, it's plenty entertaining. And, we can appreciate that this new man in leather tights purports to be no more supernatural than Stan Lee.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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