Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 29, 2013)
One can forgive Captain America fans who think that 2011’s The First Avenger marked the character’s movie debut. Although Cap has been around almost as long as others like Superman and Batman, he failed to enjoy similar cinematic prominence.
Ala Supes and Bats, Cap first hit the big screen in the 1940s via serials. After that, Cap stayed away from movie theaters for many, many decades, though not as long as most will think. First Avenger offers Cap’s second feature film offering, as 1990’s Captain America beat it by more than two decades.
Part of the brief spate of superhero flicks to materialize after the success of 1989’s Batman, there’s a reason it remains unknown to most fans: it barely made a dent. Though it played overseas, Captain America failed to receive a US theatrical presentation and went to video, where it finally showed up in 1992.
That history didn’t give me a lot of hope that Captain America would offer an enjoyable adventure, but in the midst of the character’s recent resurgence, I wanted to give it a look. A prologue circa 1936 shows how Italian military forces nab young Tadzio de Santis (Massimilio Massimi) to capitalize on his superior intelligence. Along with Nazi scientists, the Italians put Tadzio through a process that renders him twice as smart – but also much more aggressive and deformed, a factor that leads him to be rechristened “Red Skull”.
From there we leap to 1943 and encounter the US in the midst of World War II. Italian scientist Dr. Maria Vaselli (Carla Cassola) escaped after the transformation of Tadzio and now works for the Americans. She sells them on “Project Rebirth”, a way to make ordinary men into super soldiers. This is essentially the same method used on Tadzio, except it now apparently lacks the negative side effects.
In California, scrawny Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger) volunteers for the process. Too physically flawed to serve in the military, this gives him a route to do his duty. He comes through this swimmingly but Dr. Vaselli gets killed by a Nazi spy, and Steve – now known as “Captain America” – gets shot repeatedly as well.
The “super soldier” procedure allows Steve to survive and recover quickly, which then lets him go on a mission to disable a Nazi missile site. This sets up his first encounter with an adult Red Skull (Scott Paulin), but this doesn’t go well for Cap; he loses the fight and ends up strapped to a rocket. This launches with Cap attached, but not before he almost takes Red Skull with him, an action that forces the Fascist baddie to lop off his own hand to escape. Aimed at the White House, Cap manages to alter the rocket’s flight plan, and he ends up in Alaska. There he gets buried in the ice and frozen for decades.
Fast-forward to 1990 and we meet President Tom Kimball (Ronny Cox), a man who actually saw Cap on the rocket as a boy. He pursues a pro-environment path that earns him lots of enemies in various industries and in the US military, as General Fleming (Darren McGavin) works with others – including Red Skull – to undermine Kimball’s methods.
In the meantime, explorers discover Cap buried in the Alaskan ice. Cap goes on the run but eventually gets found by Kimball’s lifelong friend – and conspiracy theorist – Sam Kolawetz (Ned Beatty). It takes Kolawetz a while to bring Cap up to date, but the super soldier eventually comes around and does his best to protect the president and thwart Red Skull.
While I never saw the 1990 Captain America before the existence of this 2013 Blu-ray, I always had one assumption about it: the film would offer a tacky, cheap take on the material. I hoped to be wrong – really, could the flick be as bad as I feared?
Yup – and then some. If I try really hard, I might be able to think of something positive about Captain America.
I’m working on it…
Nope – struggle as I might, I fail to come up with anything in this misbegotten cheese-fest that succeeds. I can easily cite many factors that flop, however, beginning with the movie’s perplexing choices to alter the original Cap mythology. Why is Red Skull Italian, not German? Why is Steve Rogers from California, not New York? Why can Cap now survive gunshots at point blank range?
Good questions, none of which come with good answers. I’m fine with liberties if they make sense; I certainly don’t insist that adaptations remain 100 percent true to the source. However, I don’t understand the rationale for the movie’s alterations; they feel gratuitous and pointless.
Captain America also comes with a bizarrely muddled story. If I wanted, I could give it credit for ambition, I suppose. It posits Red Skull as the guy behind the JFK, RFK and MLK assassinations in the 60s, and it places him as the main opponent to modern day environmental progress. That’s a broader focus than one would expect from a cheap comic book flick.
Too bad that these choices do little more than make Red Skull seem like a lame James Bond villain. He lacks bite, and the whole “conspiracy against environmental reform” becomes goofy. While I don’t doubt that powerful forces work to thwart such efforts, that doesn’t become a lively theme for an action flick; in fact, the simple-minded preaching makes the movie even dopier than otherwise might be the case.
And that’s no mean feat, as the general silliness on display here reaches a level not often seen in cinema. I felt tempted to give Captain America a two-word review - “irredeemable cheesefest” – but that doesn’t suffice.
Again, I can’t come up with anything positive here. Even with a cast full of notables like Cox, Beatty and McGavin, the acting stinks. Actually, Salinger isn’t terrible; he’s not good – and I suspect he got the part because the producers hoped he’d introduce them to his reclusive father JD – but he manages to avoid embarrassment. That’s not true for any of the others, and I hope their paychecks made it worthwhile for the “name actors”, as this film provides a blight on their records.
How lazy/cheap is this film? When we see an article in the Springfield Examiner, the story spells the town as “Sprinfield”. Barry Goldberg’s synthesizer work might be among the 10 worst movie scores ever recorded, and production values vary between “crappy” and “non-existent”.
I suppose Captain America might get some credit as an almost-reunion for A Christmas Story, as it features McGavin, Melinda Dillon, and a kid who looks a lot like Ralphie. That’s about the only interesting element on display here, though, as otherwise, this is a total dud of a superhero adventure.