Robert Redford long ago transitioned from matinee idol to Hollywood elder statesman, and of late the actor, director and Sundance guru has tended to focus on smaller, serious-minded dramas, such as 2013's "The Company You Keep" (which he also directed) and "All Is Lost."
So it came as a surprise to many when Redford signed on for the latest Marvel extravaganza, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," which debuted to $96.2 million over the weekend and became the top April opening of all time.
And yet, while the thought of the leading man of "The Way We Were" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" getting mixed up with a star-spangled, shield-carrying superhero might seem incongruous, "The Winter Soldier" actually marks something of a homecoming for Redford.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have acknowledged that "The Winter Soldier," which finds Captain America (Chris Evans) dealing with a deadly new enemy and cloak-and-dagger intrigue, draws its inspiration from 1970s political thrillers, a genre that once provided Redford's bread and butter.
Marvel "told us that they wanted to do a '70s thriller, and we grew up on '70s thrillers," Joe Russo told The Times' Hero Complex last year.
In paranoid classics such as 1975's "Three Days of the Condor," about a CIA agent who finds his co-workers mysteriously murdered, and 1976's "All the President's Men," about the Watergate coverup, Redford memorably portrayed men striving to get to the bottom of shadowy conspiracies. He would later play a still-savvy CIA spook on the verge of retirement in 2001's "Spy Game."
"The Winter Soldier" finds Redford paying homage to those roles and — spoiler alert — playing against them as Alexander Pierce, a high-ranking World Security Council official who may have his own agenda. Pierce is the type of shrewd, sharp-suited string-puller who says things like, "To build a better world sometimes means tearing the old one down. And that makes enemies."
He is, you might say, the kind of character Redford would know to be wary of in a '70s thriller. This time, it's Evans' Captain America who has to watch his back and save the day.
While Redford is a old hand when it comes to conspiracy flicks, he is admittedly new to the superhero genre — and that's part of what appealed to him about the role, he told The Times at a Q&A; after a screening of "The Company You Keep" last year.
"I'm doing ['The Winter Soldier'] because it's different," Redford said. "It's a new thing for me. I think these films are really powerful. I think they're great. This is the kind of film I would have loved to see as a kid."
He added, "I like the idea of stepping into new territory. I'm excited by it. I also think it's a good bunch of people who really know what they're doing."
By now there's little Redford hasn't done on either side of the camera: In addition to his accomplished acting résumé, he directed such memorable films as "Ordinary People" (1980), for which he won the Oscar for directing, and "Quiz Show" (1994). And, of course, he founded the Sundance Film Festival.
At this stage in his career, Redford has earned the cachet and goodwill to do pretty much whatever he wants, and for now that seems to be focusing on his original calling. He told The Times in an interview last year that acting held particular appeal at the moment.
Going forward, Redford could serve as an ideal template for his younger co-star Evans. As Redford once was, Evans is an actor whose good looks occasionally threaten to overshadow his other talents, and he also harbors aspirations of directing.
Last month, Evans told Variety he was ready to leave acting behind to focus on directing after his six-film contract with Marvel is up. Days later on "Good Morning America," he backtracked and said he was by no means retiring from acting.
One lesson Evans might learn from Redford is that it's good to keep your options open. After all, you never know when you might want to come home again.