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updated: 7/21/2011 11:26 AM

'Captain America' has its moments, but never catches fire

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  • Former wimp Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) battles the Nazis as a red, white and blue superhero in "Captain America: The First Avenger."

      Former wimp Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) battles the Nazis as a red, white and blue superhero in "Captain America: The First Avenger."

  • Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), right, discusses strategy with Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) in "Captain America: The First Avenger."

      Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), right, discusses strategy with Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) in "Captain America: The First Avenger."

  • Video: "Captain America" trailer

 
 

Stars have never spangled more earnestly than they do in "Captain America: The First Avenger," a new superhero flick disguised as a classic Hollywood war movie.

The film whisks us back to the 1940s, when U.S. military scientists administer a secret serum to a wimpy but courageous everyman named Steve Rogers and turn him into America's first Super Soldier -- a muscular, red-white-and-blue-garbed fighting machine who can't wait to take on the enemy in World War II.

Director Joe Johnston, who visited similar territory with his 1991 film "The Rocketeer," cranks the 1940s vibe up to 11, delivering gorgeous sepia-toned, art-deco inspired cityscapes and dazzling period costumes.

The action sequences, though, rarely rise above the level of generic. And the characters remain flat and dull even when the very fate of the world is at stake. In the end, "Captain America" is well-made but utterly forgettable.

After a brief present-day prologue, in which scientists appear to discover Captain America's frozen remains, we meet young Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as he's turned down yet again by a U.S. Army recruiter. Rogers desperately wants to join in the fight against the Nazis in Europe, but the recruiter points out that a scrawny, 90-pound asthmatic won't be worth much on the battlefield. "I'm saving your life," the recruiter says. (The digital effect that makes Evans look like a weakling is both creepy and distracting.)

What Rogers lacks in brawn, though, he makes up for in guts, as we see when he tenaciously stands his ground against a bully. Military scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) notices this quality, too, and he invites Rogers to take part in a top-secret experiment that will make him better, stronger, faster -- a true superhero.

The experiment is a success, which the newly bulked-up Rogers proves when he chases down and catches a Nazi spy who observed the experiment. Eventually, Rogers makes it to the battlefield, where as Captain America he leads a group of feisty soldiers against the evil Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a former Nazi leader named Johann Schmidt who now wages his own personal war against all of humanity.

When comics creators Jack Kirby and Joe Simon invented Captain America back in the early 1940s, the character was meant to embody America's patriotic can-do spirit. Director Johnston works hard to preserve this notion, delivering Cap's story without a hint of irony or cheek.

It's a good approach, and there are moments when the old-fashioned flavor of the film strikes an appealing contrast to most of the cynical, heavily marketed product that Hollywood churns out. It's hip to be square, Johnston seems to be saying.

The problem is that patriot or not, sincere or not, Captain America should be interesting, and the movie fails on that score. Evans has some nice moments early in the film, when Rogers is still a weakling, but he brings no sense of life or passion to the super-sized version of the character. It doesn't help that he, and most of the other characters in the film, are saddled with cliched, by-the-numbers dialogue throughout. (Consider this exchange between the Red Skull and Captain America during a battle scene. Red Skull: "You don't give up easily, do you?" Cap: "Nope.")

"Captain America" is the fourth major superhero flick to open this summer, behind "Thor," "X-Men: First Class" and "Green Lantern." It's also the final setup film leading into next year's "The Avengers," which will bring Thor, Captain America and Iron Man together in one film.

After watching "Captain America," though, I have to wonder how much juice the superhero-movie craze has left. Right now, the genre looks as if it could use some super-serum of its own.

Note: "Captain America: The First Avenger" is being shown in 3-D and in 2-D. The 3-D conversion is largely worthless here. Save some money and see the 2-D version.

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