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Marvel Comics’s red-white-and-blue superhero Captain America returns to the fray for his second solo film, but he’s a long way from the good-versus-evil certainties of his World War Two-era origins.

Back then Chris Evans’s puny Brooklyn kid Steve Rogers, transformed by an experimental serum into strapping super-soldier Captain America, went into battle against the Nazis. Now, having been defrosted in the present day, his slippery enemies are far harder to pin down.

And Steve won’t be the only one puzzled. The Winter Soldier begins at full pelt with a furious hostage-rescue mission aboard a cargo ship that will leave any newcomers in the audience feeling all at sea.

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Fortunately, a quick tour of the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum is around the corner to bring newbies up to date with the Cap’s backstory. Spare a thought, though, for Steve himself, trying to get his head round the seven decades he missed during his big freeze.

Yet he soon has far more pressing concerns than ticking off items on his checklist of pop cultural milestones (niftily, the list varies depending on where the film is shown: The Beatles and Sean Connery feature in the UK; Disco and Steve Jobs in the US; and Rafa Nadal and Chupa Chups in Spain, for example).

And when the plot really gets going (some spoilers ahead) we discover that the film’s true concerns are surprisingly up to date. The slick politician in charge of espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D., Alexander Pierce (played in a wily piece of casting by Robert Redford), is pushing for the implementation of Project Insight, a system of global surveillance and pre-emptive strikes that will make the world a safer place (sound familiar?).

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Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), Steve’s boss at S.H.I.E.L.D., is on board with the programme, too. But then Fury becomes the target of a ferocious assassination attempt spearheaded by a mysterious hitman known as the Winter Soldier, and in the attack’s aftermath Steve and fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Sam Wilson, aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie), realise that something is rotten at the heart of the agency. So rotten, in fact, that there is no one else they can trust as they strive to put things right.

The attack on Fury comes with a scorching car chase and ferocious shoot-out, revealing that directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo have been looking to the Bourne movies and Michael Mann’s Heat for inspiration. The scenes that follow, though, have a gripping mood of paranoia that recalls the great conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s.

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Of course, Evans’s Steve is a superhero rather than a bookworm – as was the character Redford played in 1975’s Three Days of the Condor – and Winter Soldier soon reverts to conventional comic-book action movie type.

The film’s later CGI-boosted fight scenes go on far too long and its politics become increasingly muddled, but the steady supply of witty one-liners and fleeting sight gags help keep the viewer engaged.

Johansson’s sassy, snarky Black Widow provides some of the film’s best moments, delivering quips and backflips with equal panache. And she also gets to perform the story’s most politically provocative act with a feat taken directly from the Edward Snowden playbook.

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Certificate 12A. Runtime 136 mins. Directors Anthony Russo, Joe Russo.

[swf]http://uk.player.filmtrailer.com/v3.1/&mid=13338&channel_user_id=441100180-1&repeat=1&volume=0[/swf]

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