Written by Chad Derdowski
If you are a die-hard fan of superhero cinema who simply can’t wait for this summers’ hit film Captain America: The First Avenger to hit the shelves on DVD and Blu-Ray, then MGM has got quite an offer to tide you over. Currently available through their Manufacturing on Demand program is this largely unseen and with any luck, forgotten, gem. I’m sorry, did I say “gem”? I meant “turd.”
Captain America was scheduled to be released in 1990 to coincide with the title character’s 50th anniversary. Trailers were cut and promotional posters featuring Cap’s iconic shield were seen in theaters but alas, it never came to fruition. Not in America, anyway: the film somehow managed to secure an international release before eventually seeing the light of day on cable television and appearing in video rental stores in 1992.
And now, just in time to cash in on the recent success of the new film and milk a few bucks out of the aforementioned die-hards, completists, and the multitude of suckers who are born every minute, director Albert Pyun’s masterpiece (I’m using that word very loosely) is ready and waiting for you to enjoy it. It’s true that the film only received a 13% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but don’t take their word for it – please allow me a moment of your time to tell you how truly terrible this film is.
Our story opens in 1936 with the story of a young genius being taken captive by the fascist Italian government as part of their super-soldier program. This young lad will soon become the Red Skull, who, for the purposes of this film is of Italian rather than German descent. It is the first of many liberties the film takes with the Captain America mythos and is arguably the most offensive. It’s sort of a “sink or swim” mentality: if you can handle this completely pointless alteration, you’ll probably be cool with the rest of it. Until you see Cap’s rubber ears, that is. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
So this kid ends up enhanced both mentally and physically as a result of experimentation. He also ends up horribly disfigured. The scientist responsible for the program, repulsed by the evil she has wrought, flees to America to perfect her super-soldier serum on a more worthy candidate. This, of course, is Steve Rogers, a frail young man played by Matt Salinger, the son of reclusive author J.D. Salinger. When I relayed this bit of information to my wife, a huge Salinger fan, she replied “Oh, I didn’t know his son was an actor.” “He really isn’t.” I said, pointing to this film as evidence. Anyway, Rogers’ mom is played by Melinda Dillon, also known as the mom from A Christmas Story. So that was kinda cool, especially since Darrin McGavin also has a role in the film. Oh yeah, and Billy Mumy is in it too. There – I’ve just told you everything cool about the movie in three sentences.
So where was I? Oh yeah, Steve Rogers becomes Cap and a Nazi spy kills the scientist responsible, making Captain America one of a kind. He is promptly sent on his first mission, which ends in abject failure. The good Captain finds himself strapped to a rocket headed for the White House. Perhaps this was a result of being sent into combat armed with a shoddy, plastic shield as his only weapon? Or maybe it had something to do with the fake musculature (ala Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman) which only covered his abdomen? Maybe the Super Soldier Serum only works on abs? At any rate, Cap gets his clock cleaned by the Red Skull but does manage to take the Skull’s hand with him as a souvenir.
On his way toward certain doom, Cap is photographed by a young Tom Kimball, who will one day grow up to become President of the United States. Kimball shares his discovery with a portly pal who intends on becoming a writer. You can tell he wants to be a writer by the pencil prominently displayed behind his ear. Well, Captain America manages to kick the rocket off course and winds up frozen in ice. Tom Kimball, as previously mentioned, grows up to become President while the other kid grows up to become Ned Beatty. I guess they can’t all be winners, huh?
Fast forward to the early 1990s and the Red Skull is alive and kicking and in charge of a dark and mysterious crime syndicate responsible for the assassinations of Martin Luther King as well as both Kennedy brothers. Refusing to make a martyr out of President Kimball, he instead chooses to kidnap him and… uh… I’m kinda unclear as to what their plan was. I might’ve actually signed into Facebook at this point in the movie. I was already losing interest.
Meanwhile, Steve Rogers has been unfrozen and reunited with Bernie, the girl he left behind way back in the ’40s. Bernie’s caked in the most unconvincing old-age makeup I have ever seen in my entire life and she comes equipped with a crotchety husband and a daughter who looks like you’d imagine Debbie Gibson’s older sister might look. She gets Steve up to speed on modern life via some rented VHS tapes before the Skull’s goons show up, hot on the trail of the intrepid reporter Ned Beatty and raise a ruckus. One thing leads to another and right about here, I was barely even paying attention anymore. At any rate, Captain America and Debbie Gibson’s older sister end up heading to Rome to save the President and ensure that freedom is safe from the forces of evil.
My apologies if you find this review less than enlightening. I found the movie less than tolerable. I can’t be certain, because my memory is quite fuzzy, but I’m pretty sure the old Reb Brown made-for-TV Captain America flicks were actually better than this one. To be honest with you, I’ve had bouts with the flu that were more enjoyable than the 97 minutes I spent watching this travesty. And I haven’t even gotten into Captain America’s rubber ears! And I’m not going to. I’ve read plenty of reports on the budget concerns while this movie was being filmed and according to an interview I read with Pyun, they actually ran out of film one day while shooting and couldn’t continue making the movie! And it shows. It really does.
It seems that if a there was a corner in the making of this film, it was guaranteed to be cut, from the script to the costumes to the acting and everything in between. With the exception of a few cool ideas – such as a criminal organization secretly controlling the world through manipulation of its governments and assassination of idealists – the film pretty much fails on every level.
It fails to connect with the audience in any fashion, save for those moments when you point at the screen laughing, asking whoever is watching it with you “Can you believe they actually filmed this?” It’s not for a lack of trying though. Captain America is one of those situations where you can occasionally get a glimpse of what the filmmakers wanted to do and if you “squint your eyes” really hard, you can just barely make out the blurry figure of what might have been a decent idea or two.
The story of a man out of time trying to live up to a lofty ideal and doing his best to ensure that those ideals are protected for the betterment of humankind is a good concept. Unfortunately, it has been done a million times in the Captain America comics and it’s been done a whole lot better. You want my advice? Skip this one and just wait for the new Cap film to be released if you want to see the Star-Spangled Avenger done correctly. And if you absolutely can’t wait, pick up a Captain America omnibus from your local comic shop. I often count myself among those brave souls who can enjoy a film based not on its merits but rather on its lack thereof. I own a copy of Lone Wolf McQuade, for the love of god, and I’ve watched it on several occasions! But Captain America doesn’t even fall into the realm of “so bad it’s good”; it is simply bad. It is not a “B movie” but rather, an F. As in “F you, comic book fans!”
Unless you’re the type of person who enjoys torturing themselves, or perhaps someone with chemical-dependency issues, I would suggest that you avoid Captain America at all costs.