So, after reviewing four other films, we finally get to this Captain America. Thanks to its director’s reputation among internet-savvy Bad Movie aficionados, this movie arguably “enjoys” the highest profile of any pre-2011 Captain America production. That’s unfortunate because it’s a terribly flawed film that nevertheless remains faithful to its source material in ways no superhero movie would even try match until the turn of the millennium.
We’re really spoiled in this post-X-Men/post-Spider-Man era. These days, budgets are high, actors are enthusiastic, and corporate shills are rubbing their hands together in barely-sublimated glee as each new superhero movie edges toward opening weekend. Back in the late-80s, the opposite was true. Batman might’ve hit big after a year of full-tilt marketing but, previous to that, the last big budget superhero production in America’s conscious memory was…Superman IV…a cataclysmic failure that undid pretty much all its 1979 prequel’s hard work and turned the entire genre’s Campiness Clock back to 1968.
In the midst of all this, Marvel Comics got ambitious and quickly made cheap deals to produce some of its own superhero films. Who better to kick things off than Steve Rogers, Living Symbol of His Country, who kicked things off for a little company called Timely Comics back in the 1940s? Timely Comics became Atlas which, eventually, became Marvel, and by 1989, with Cap’s fiftieth birthday approaching, Marvel brass decided to honor their not-quite-super man.
Unfortunately, this movie ran smack into Murphy’s Law. It has all the problems of a Golden Age Superhero film, but it’s a different breed of boring than, say, Superman III. It’s an Albert Pyun film, and not a very good one, though even the best Pyun films have their own…let’s say “special” problems. Story beats dictated by the availability of shooting locations and/or “name” actors. Underdeveloped characters doing stuff that makes no sense, until you remember to close your eyes, click your heels and say, “it’s in the script….it’s in the script…it’s in the script…”
But really, this film had problem’s from conception. You couldn’t do this Captain America’s story justice without a four hour epic, comparable to Richard Donner’s original conception for Superman I and II. You can still see those two films, not so much “sandwiched” as “wrapped” together here, ultimately unsatisfying because neither really mingles with the other. There’s no overall flavor to this Captain America: it’s just a jumbled up mess. If Reb Brown was Captain America‘s New Coke (i.e., the one that no one really liked and everyone quickly forgot about) this is unmistakably Captain America Lite. Less-filling, sure, but it doesn’t come close to tasting great, no matter how many annoying commercials might say different.
Like any good Captain America story, this one begins…in Italy. It’s 1936 so, of course Nazis are prowling the streets, abducting children right out of their homes in the middle of piano recitals, the monsters. They force their young victim to watch as they gun down his parents for no real reason, other than…ya know…Nazis. Who wrote this crap again?
Wait…Lawrence Block? Never heard of him…and…Stephen Tolkin? The writer of…Daybreak? Intensity? Mr. Murder? All those crappy Dean Koontz adaptions that used to clog up ABC in the mid-to-late-90s? What’s he working on these days…? Brothers and Sisters? Really? Okay, riddle me this: what’s worse? Writing a cheap Captain America movie for Albert Pyun and a Marvel Comics that was already teetering toward bankruptcy in 1990…or writing a regular-people-network’s watered down knock-off of Six Feet Under?
Either way, after the credits, we find our Nazis at “Fortress Lorenzo” in “Italy” (played here by what was then-credited as “Yugoslavia”) watching a film about a rat …which is one hell of a visual metaphor, now that I think about it. Human rats watching rat-rats who watch the human rats in turn, thanks to the magic of cameras. A particularly treacherous Nazi interrupts this perfect metaphysical circuit by directing his Nazi colleagues to a cage by the projector, supposedly containing the star of that great example of German Expressionism they just screened.
Head Nazi throws off the curtain to reveal…a stop-motion puppet, its skin removed but its size and strength increased thanks to the Super Soldier Serum Nazi Super Scientists cooked up. The rats of the Reich, with the aid of “Frau Dr.” Maria Vaselli (Carla Cassola) are all set to inject the Super Soldier formula into that poor little Italian boy they abducted…when Frau Dr. Vaselli suddenly gets an attack of the conscience. I guess watching them strap the boy into the Super-Scientific Sadism Chair was just too much for her. Where’s your scientific objectivity, Doctor?
Through the magic of bad editing, Frau Dr. Vaselli escapes, and seven years pass in the space of a black screen and two white title cards. By 1943, Vaselli’s defected to the U.S., which is now (obviously) in the thick of The Last Good War. Cut to a shot of the White House, in Washington D.C., accompanied by a title card that reads “The White House: Washington D.C.”
Huh. I’m sorry. Must’ve put in a Corey Yuen movie by mistake…no, wait. A pair of hands meant to stand for President Roosevelt is fondling a manila folder while someone talks about “Project: Rebirth.” So this has to be Captain America. With Dr. Vaseli now on the side of the angels, the War Department plans to whip up a whole regiment of Super Soldiers. “And we’ve found our first recruit out in California: Steve Rogers.”
Cut to the Rogers home, here relocated to Los Angeles for the same reason so many film’s take place there – its cheap. Steve (Matt Salinger – son of J.D.) is saying a tearful goodbye to his mom (Melinda Dillon) while she passes him his dead father’s posthumous medal as some weird species of good luck charm. It’s an honestly heart-warming scene that belongs in a better movie. As does the next, where Steve limps down to the docks so he can kiss his girlfriend, Bernie (Kim Gillingham) goodbye while standing in front of the ocean. More dramatic that way, supposedly, but that assumes I care about these characters I’ve known for all of two minutes. Too bad Dr. Vaseli’s here with the Army car. Bye, Steve’s entire supporting cast! Nice of the film to notice you (several versions of you, in fact) have actually existed in the comics for (at this point) neigh-on fifty years..
This film pays lip-service to Captain America’s story, but it’s got too much ground to cover. The lack of time in Steve’s home-town, 1940s melieu means we never get to know Steve apart from his superpowers. Was he always such a bumbling oaf, or is that a side-effect of suddenly jumping from Polio Victim to Peak Physical Perfection? We’ll never know, and the movie’s got no time to ask, much less answer, these questions.
Speaking of which, it’s off to the original super-secret Super Soldier Project. Which, in this film, is cleverly disguised as a diner. Because super-secret Super Soldier Projects had a lot more class back in the 40s, before the CIA took over and started running everything into the ground. Bastards have all the interior design sense of drug-running, genocidal maniacs.
Dr. Vaselli ties Steve to a chair, injects him with Formula and hits him with (what I assume) are Vita Rays. No effort’s made to differentiate Steve’s pre- and post-op physiques (apart from some wardrobe changes) and that’s sad, but it continues a tradition Reb Brown established back in 1979. At least the whole thing has a recognizable, Golden Age of Sci-Fi air to it. You couldn’t do that on TV, with dirt bike and helicopter stunts. You need secret labs, ex-Nazi scientists, and hidden assassins who pose as visitors from the White House before shouting, “Heil Hitler!” right before they gun down their targets. Having done nothing to prevent this, Steve Frankensteins off the table, finally showcasing his powers of bullet absorption and no longer knowing his own strength. He ends up punching the assassin into some fuse boxes before anyone can get anything out of him.
Yet, somehow, in the very next scene, Colonel Louis (Michael Nouri), head of Project: Rebirth, knows of a Nazi superweapon pointed at Washington. This is all Steve needs to get up off the table and into uniform. Good stuff, competently shot, with the right amount of childlike awe you need to pull something like this off. I just wish Pyun hadn’t smeared Vaseline all over the camera to signify that all this takes place in “the past.” I know it’s the fucking past – the Big Black Card said so! I just want to see things clearly. Now that Captain America’s in uniform, I can…but I’m no longer sure I really want to.
Yes…that “fireproof uniform.” Made from materials Dr. Vaseline invented whenever she wasn’t perfecting the Super Soldier Serum (I guess). Colored as it is because “she sure did love the red, white and blue.” She also invented an indestructible (and just as brightly colored) shield out of some unidentifiable alloy. Besides which, “Dr. Vaselli had all the details of the process in her head…Same for whatever she made the uniform and the shield out of. She thought it was safer that way.” So Dr. Vaselli was an Ayn Rand protagonist. I don’t think there’s any way of getting around that.
She’s also a great example of where this film, lacking resources, diverged from its sources to everyone’s detriment. It squeezed three characters into Dr. Vaselli, making her the most powerful Super Scientist in film history. (I’ll have to ask Liz Kingsley to confirm that but, until she writes me back, consider it true.) She might as well’ve been named “Dr. Mary Sue” or “Dr. Plot Contrivance.” Thank God she defected, or we’d all be living inside The Man in the High Castle‘s alternate history. And if I’m gonna live in a Philip K. Dick book, I might as well pick Maze of Death. At least it’s pre-holodeck, Matrix-analogue technology would allow for interesting diversions.
Dr. Plot Convenience aside, I like this costume, and I like that we see Captain America kicking Nazi ass while wearing it. This should really be its own film and, surprise, that’s exactly what the 2011 film looks to be. Captain America’s pretty unique in that he’s one of the few characters with two origin stories, both canonical and both necessary to his overall character arc. That’s why Marvel Comics creators invented the whole “frozen-in-ice-for-years” plot device back in the 60s: they recognized, like the makers of this film, that Captain America’s at his best when he’s slaughtering Nazis with a shield that actually seems to weigh something…and isn’t quite so obviously made of plastic.
Unfortunately, the strengths of Albert Pyun movies often double as their greatest weaknesses This is the film’s best action sequence, possessed of a magic it’ll struggle – and fail – to recapture for the next hour…which feels more like two, because this sequence in 1943 feels like such a climax. I think this is why 2011’s Captain America focuses on Cap’s war-time service, why 1979’s Captain America retconned his World War II days out of existence, and why Ultimate Avengers opened cold, dropping us right into the middle of a big(ger) budget, cartoon remake of…this action sequence, more or less.
Watch: after this Captain America‘s best scene concludes, we see it at its absolute dumbest. First we see the Red Skull (now played by Scott Paulin and his horrible accent) beats Captain America down like a bitch. “It seems the Americans have made a poor choice for their champion.” And it looks like they made an even poorer choice by choosing to forgo teaching him basic, unarmed self-defense. “Pity him,” the Red Skull says. “He is like a child.” The Nazis treat him accordingly: tying him to the rocket they’ve aimed at the White House. You know, the one in Washington D.C.?
In a last ditch move to stop the launch, Captain America grabs the Red Skull’s arm. In response, the Red Skull whips out a boot-knife. Now, there are any number of things you can do if you find yourself in the Red Skull’s situation. Let’s see which one he’ll chose. Will he
-shank Cap through the rips until ol’ wings-on-his-head lets go?
-put the knife to Cap’s throat and start sawing, presaging Rob Zombie’s 2009 Michael Myers?
-drop the knife, pull out a gun, and just shoot the flag-draped fucker, like he should’ve done in the first place?
No. Instead, he tries to cut off Captain America’s hand. But our proud symbol of liberty gives a good pull at the last moment. So, not only is Red Skull dumb enough to fall for the “C’mere; let me tell you a secret” trick, his one and only injury in this, his first battle with Captain America, turns out to be self-inflicted. Already both Our Hero and Villain look like total fuck-ups. What could be worse?
How about some bad special effects? Sure, why not. Cut to Washington D.C. Not the White House, though. They couldn’t afford a Roosevelt impersonator. Instead, we cut to the home of young Tom Kimball (Garette Ratliff Henson), amateur photographer and future President of the United States. Young Tom sneaks out for a bike trip around the White House, leaving him perfectly positioned to snap a photo of Captain America and his incoming Nazi rocket…that rocket that managed get all the way from Italy to Washington on one tank of fuel, hauling a Captain America who somehow managed to survive the trip without asphyxiating or freezing to death. As if that weren’t enough, Cap manages to divert the rocket (saving both young Tom and the White House) by transforming it into a badly-made bluescreen shot.
Sorry, I mean, “kicking it.” Yes. He’s so successful, in fact, that the rocket pulls a complete one-eighty and crash lands “somewhere in Alaska.” Because Cap’s far too patriotic to crash land somewhere in Canada. There’s plot contrivance, there’s plot convenience, there’s Dr. Plot Convenience (may she rest in peace)…and then there’s Nazi intercontinental ballistic missiles. In 1943. From a character perspective, wouldn’t diverting the missile be Cap’s first thought? While they were over a nice, big ocean, say? There’s several between Italy and the U.S., so I hear…
Why would a movie strain our credibility so? Because that silly little kid has to observe the rocket’s near-miss. How else could Captain America inspire him to become President of the United States? Better yet, young Tom Kimball grows up to be the multi-talented, reasonably-well-known-and-loved actor Ronny Cox, late of RoboCop, Total Recall, and St. Elsewhere. Seeing him as President Kimball is like seeing a holy vision in a battlefield. We get the sense of what this movie could’ve been with a budget, as they obviously spent everything they had to keep Ronny Cox around and make Matt Salinger look like an amateur.
They spent the excess on Ned (“Otis” from the first two Superman movies)Beatty, who plays President Kimball’s childhood friend, Sam, now a multiple Pulitzer Prize winning journalist (specializing in crackpot “conspiracy theories” that are, of course, completely true within the film’s context) and the first man President Kimball calls as soon as he sees reports of a recent “Arctic Discovery,” a “Man Found in ice.” (Typesetters would call in sick on the day Captain America’s rediscovered.) Now, let’s pretend: You’re the President of the United States, an office you were partially inspired to aspire to by the flag-draped superhero who saved your life as a child. You pick up the paper one day and discover, holy frijoles, that very same superhero, alive and upright after fifty years in the deep freeze. Do you (A) call every national security agency in your secretary’s Rolodex and tell ’em to haul ass up to Alaska? Or do you (B) call up your childhood friend, the Reporter?
For President Cox, the decision was made the moment they hired Beatty. So instead of a full S.H.I.E.L.D. cordon, complete with surly, eye-patch wearing general, Steve’s met by one dumpy guy in…a Volkswagen. Smooth move, Mr. President. Next you’re going to tell me Captain America will thaw out, find himself surrounded by Germans, and immediately think he’s in enemy territory…Oh, shit. That exactly happens. When will these movies learn I’m kidding when I say shit like that? Stop giving me what I sarcastically ask for! It never helps either of us!
Sam arrives just in time, since Red Skull’s also learned of Cap’s resurrection from the Italian papers, and sent his trio of femme fatale assassins (because he just has them, that’s why) to make sure the Captain never reaches civilization. Contrived chase scene (and it’s dirt bikes, with all the uncomfortable flashbacks to Reb Brown’s movies they bring with them) aside, this sets up my favorite scene. In that truck, Sam tries to bring the Cap’n up to speed, but his excitement sabotages all his best intentions. He, like everyone else in the film (with one exception), is so jazzed by idea of sitting down and talking to Captain Flippin America, he fails to notice how much simply sitting in a German-made car freaks Steve right the fuck-out. To say nothing of the whole, “you been frozen in ice for fifty years, son,” thing.
As Sam fills Steve in on what the Red Skull’s been up to (he’s become “the Kingpin of an international cartel…You see, I’ve got proof that this Red Skull guy was closely involved in the murders of Robert Kennedy, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King… Jesus, you don’t even know who I’m talking about do ya? “) the camera becomes Steve’s eyes. They drift across the “Made in Japan” sticker on Sam’s tape recorder, the “Volkswagen” sticker on the dash…and Salinger has a great line, showing us this Captain America is as much a nerd as we mere mortals,
“I saw a movie once where they tried to do this to some English spy: fake newspapers, fake radio, the whole thing.”
Believing himself trapped in that film, Cap fakes a spot of motion sickness…so he can steal Sam’s truck. And you know something? Captain America would be the perfect protagonist for a Marvel Comics/Grand Theft Auto tie-in video game. The Rockstar boys love old movies, too. You know they could do it and it almost can’t be any worse than the Captain America games we have…though, now that I’ve said that, watch out: I think I just jinxed it. (Damn you, Hallie Berry!)
Throughout all this, the film keeps cutting away to its other, vaguely-intertwining threads. President Cox’s pushing a stringent environmental guidelines bill that would, among other things “cut back on [the Pentagon’s] solid waste 90% in six months.” So saith the butt-hurt General (Michael Nouri) who makes his displeasure known during a visit to this film’s travel-sized Oval Office. President Cox responds the way I wish every president would respond to those fossilized denizens of the geometric boil on the south side of the Potomac:
“You want to make a deal? Then buy a used car.”
This actual environmentalism (rather than the token snowjobs and corporate ad-campaigns that pass for such among our universe’s politicians) puts President Cox afoul of the Red Skull…and his international cabal of powerful individuals who direct the course of human events from the smoke-filled rooms of Fortress Lorenzo. And his femme fatal assassin squad, whom I dubbed “The Red Skull’s Angels,” at least one of whom (as mentioned) is his biological daughter (Francesca Neri). Crap, movie, you mean to tell me someone actually lowered themselves to intercourse with the Red Skull? Christ, where’s that story? It would probably make a better movie than this
What’s the Red Skull’s grand plan? Kidnap President Cox and implant him with a mind control device of the Red Skull’s own design. At the very least, we know the kidnapping succeeds and, since it occurs off-screen, things must’ve gone well.
What do we watch instead? Steve, hoboing his way home, only to find Bernie’s now a Golden Ager , having finally married someone else after she turned 38 and that ol’ clock began a’ tickin’. At least she’s got a hot daughter (played by the same actress with a different haircut) named Sharon, providing Steve with an age-appropriate Love Interest for the rest of the film. Guess the Red Skull’s Angels have to murder Bernice now. Yep; there they go, like clockwork. And there goes Ned Beatty, too.
Reeling from this, Steve gets even more bad news from the Plot Specific News Network: President Cox’s off-screen kidnapping. I know I’m harping on this, but its the laziest, most-annoying bit in the film since Red Skull managed to cut off his own hand. The President of the United States…whom we already know as major supporting character…got himself kidnapped off-screen. There’s no excuse for that, other than a cataclysmic lack of funding…which is another unfortunate hallmark of the Albert Pyun film.
Instead of driving up to the nearest army post, declaring himself Captain America, and joining up with the special forces team in charge of rescuing President Cox, Cap and Sharon fly to Italy so they can bone up on the Red Skull, maybe Nancy Drew their way to wherever he’s hiding out. How long does it take them to check Fortress Lorzeno? Where the Red Skull’s apparently hung his hat, lo’ these last fifty years? Too long! Because Captain America’s learning to get along with his dead girlfriend’s clone/daughter is so much more interesting than the climactic fight scene.
And how does the Living Symbol of Liberty finally figure out his arch enemy’s location? He doesn’t. All he does it get ambushed by the Red Skull’s Angels in some random “Italian” plaza. After evading them and circling back around it’s, not Steve, but Sharon who finds the Red Skull’s daughter’s purse amidst the post-battle rubble. Inside, Sharon finds the female assassin’s driver’s license…which, of course, has he real name and her current address printed right on there. Which address? Fortress Lorenzo Island, of course. Because why even bother keeping her father’s Terrorist Headquarters a secret?
During said climactic fight, we learn President Ronny Cox kicks a hell of a lot more ass than Captain America, picking up guns and taking out thugs with a big, goofy-ass grin on his face. His joy’s undoubtedly reflective of everyone else, both in front of and behind the camera, all of whom were obviously just psyched by the idea of making a Captain America movie.
But joy and high hopes don’t pay the bills or plug the plot-holes. Why is President Kimball in this film at all? He contributes nothing until the climax, when he does what any sidekick would do and helps the hero get to the Big Showdown before credits. Until then, he’s a living MacGuffin, and during the climax his presence distracts us from the person with their name in the title, because he’s Ronny Fucking Cox. You could’ve omitted him completely, let Sharon fulfill the same role (not like there haven’t been “female Buckys” – and one Golden Girl – before now) and you wouldn’t have lost anything…except the questionable star power of Ronny Cox…who might’ve drawn a good chunk of the nerd-core audience in 1990…but why the hell would a Captain America movie need the extra help?
Better question: why is this Red Skull Italian? Well, because shooting in Germany’s expensive. And I hear tell they don’t take too kindly to people dressing up in Nazi uniforms…even if it is for a movie. Cheaper to film everything in
Slovenia Croatia “Italy,” including an obligatory, third-act-padding chase scene, which leads to Sharon getting kidnapped by the Red Skull’s Angels (of course). Why not get permission to shoot inside an actual fortress? Every Climactic Battle needs a dramatic backdrop! Just like every villain needs himself a lair with the appropriate level of “wow.”
Lord knows Captain America isn’t going to provide that. That’s not to speak ill of his actor. Salinger’s a far better choice than Reb Brown and I like bits and pieces of his portrayal. But he’s playing a stripped-down version of Captain America in what’s effectively the thin skein of two movies we’ll never see. No one had the budget to make them. One tells the story of a polio survivor who earns the chance to serve his country by participating in a risky, secret medical experiment he might or might not survive. That movie lasts twenty minutes. The other movie is a Captain America origin story, done with what looks like even less money than CBS had in 1979…money they used to make two feature length movies that, unlike this, felt complete in themselves.
One sets up the universe, the other plays within it. One establishes characters, the other takes them through actual arcs, encouraging growth and change. Of course, all good films should do this on their own, but trying to do a two-in-one didn’t help anybody.
It’s like two Captain America movies tried to absorb each other in the womb. The stillborn results might be of interest to the Annals of Medical Science, but lay people will probably start things out unnerved. Then, when they actual bother to look at the thing, they might be grossed out for a bit, but you can get used to pretty much anything, given enough time.
That’s where this Captain America really lets you down: it gets boring. It’s like the movie’s ticking off the high points of Captain America’s origin from a bullet list. It’s mechanical, hollow, and route, three adjectives that could readily describe whole swaths of its director’s filmography. For those who don’t know, Albert (sometimes “Albert F.”) Pyun is a prolific Hawaiian-born filmmaker, infamous among Bad Movie circles for Alien From L.A., Cyborg, Kickboxers 2 and 4, Dollman, the Nemesis quadrology, and my personal favorite, Brain Smasher…A Love Story, a movie so lazy and pretentious, it puts an ellipses right there…in its title. How could I not love it, right?
Captain America was Pyun’s eighth movie in a career that started out bland (with Sword and the Sorcerer) and quickly swirled down a toilet bowl. Despite being several orders of magnitude better than most of Pyun’s subsequent work, this Captain America (recently re-released on Blu-Ray, complete with obligatory Director’s Cut I haven’t seen) still has little to recommend it beyond the name on the box. And I don’t mean Captain America’s.
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