Movie Review: Captain America (1990)
“Hey, this doesn’t seem so bad.”
That was my thought 10 minutes into Albert Pyun’s “Captain America,” which was supposed to be godawful. The movie was made in the summer of ’89 for release in the summer of ’90 but it didn’t get released. It just disappeared. It was like they’d come up with a plague germ and needed to keep it isolated in a lab. Two whole years went by before it finally saw light, or a kind of light: it went straight to video. It was so bad that Cap’s co-creator, Jack Kirby, who fought to get his name on the film, fought, after the premiere, to get his name off it. More than 7,000 IMDb users have collectively given the thing a 3.2 rating. That’s the second-lowest-rated superhero movie ever, after “Steel,” starring Shaquille O’Neil. Right: worse than “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” “Supergirl,” “Batman & Robin” and “Catwoman.”
Yet, initially, it didn’t seem so bad to me. It helped that I’d just watched the 1944 and 1979 versions of Captain America, and this Captain America, at least, looked like Captain America: same uniform, same shield, same boots. The origin of the Red Skull in Italy in 1936 had some decent production values, and they did their best to make the pre-Cap Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger, son of J.D.) seem skinny and weak. Sure, the opening scene is melodramatic while the stuff on the homefront with the girl, Bernie (Kim Gillingham), is sappy to the point of silliness; plus the southern accents of the military officers (Michael Nouri, Bill Mumy) are like out of some high school production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” But 10 minutes in I wasn’t seeing godawful.
Then it kept going.
Shooting Captain America at the White House
Here’s the story. Remember: this is the story of Captain America.
It’s 1943. For his first mission, a month after being reborn, a nervous Cap parachutes into a castle in Nazi Germany, where the Red Skull awaits, kicks his ass, and ties him to a rocket ship aimed at the White House. And off it goes. But at the last minute, over Washington, D.C., Cap, still tied up, kicks at the missile and sends it to Alaska, where he’s buried in the snow and ice. The only witness to his heroics is a little boy with a camera, who, inspired, grows up to be the President of the United States!
Fast forward 50 years. In the 1990s, Cap is discovered by ...
OK, wait. Hold it right there.
So ... Captain America, the World War II fighting force, has only one mission during World War II? Which he fails miserably? Then he’s shot at the White House? And only averts complete disaster with some pathetic kicking? Which some boy witnesses from the ground? And considers heroic?
You could do this for the entire movie: reiterate its plot with disbelieving question marks.
After being unfrozen Cap wanders around the woods of northern Canada? And the only two people who find him are the fashion-model daughter of the Red Skull, Valentina de Santis (Francesca Neri), and Sam Kolawetz (Ned Beatty), the best friend of the president, now an enterprising reporter with assassination conspiracy theories? And they converge on Cap at the exact same moment? And Valentina shoots Cap but Sam saves him? Then Cap distrusts Sam and steals his truck and drives it to southern California? And he realizes he’s been frozen for 50 years only when he sees a thong bikini at the beach?
What the fuck?
Captain America is not only not a hero here, he’s not even known. Only two people know he exists: the Red Skull (Scott Paulin), who, from a castle in Italy, plots his nefarious schemes, including the assassinations of JFK, RFK, MLK, and the scuttling of Pres. Tom Kimball’s environmental bill; and Pres. Tom Kimball (Ronny Cox), who, when his childhood hero is resurrected, sends no one in the government, no Army, etc., to find him. Just his pudgy childhood friend.
Eventually Cap teams with Bernie’s daughter, Sharon (also Kim Gillingham), whom he initially thinks is Bernie. This creeps her out so she decks him. It’s supposed to be meet-cute; but at this point Cap has done nothing except lose fights so it just adds to the embarrassment. Then the Red Skull’s minions, who look like mobsters in a Dolce & Gabana ad, figure out where he’s staying and kill both Bernie, now aged, and Sam Kolawetz, the president’s best friend. Cap shows up too late for that. He’s been watching videos about assassinations. When the bad guys track Steve Rogers to the diner, Roz’s Café, where Cap was born, a fight ensues that Steve actually wins.
I.e., after 50 years and an hour of screentime, Captain America finally wins his first fight.
Then he and Sharon fly to Italy to confront the Red Skull in his castle, where, unbeknownst to Steve, although it’s worldwide news, the Red Skull has kidnapped and drugged (and somehow plans to replace) Pres. Kimball. But Cap saves POTUS and the two men, giving each other sappy thumbs ups, join forces in saving Sharon and stopping the Red Skull and ensuring the passage of a sweeping environmental bill. Then Sharon puts her head on Cap’s chest while Cap looks off majestically into the middle distance.
It’s like they hired a few professionals, readied some B- or C- or F-grade production values, then handed everyone a script written by a 9-year-old.
The question is: Who’s to blame?
Is it screenwriter Stephen Tolin, who has 24 screenwriting credits, including “Masters of the Universe” (1987), “The Craigslist Killer” (2011), and a few episodes of the critically acclaimed series “Brothers and Sisters”? How about director Albert Pyun, who started directing schlock (“The Sword and the Sorcerer”), stayed in a different kind of schlock (Jean-Claude Van Damme movies) and reverted to various other brands of schlock (horror/revenge straight-to-video thrillers)?
Nah. It’s none of these guys. The blame goes to one man: Menahem Golan of Cannon Films.
Golan, along with cousin Yoram Globus, was responsible for some of the worst movies of the ’80s and ’90s. Apparently these guys had good intentions but a wide appetite. They wanted to make classy movies (“Barfly”), action-adventure (“Superman IV: The Quest for Peace”), and exploitation flicks (the “Death Wish” sequels), but were probably best at exploitation. Their eyes were always bigger than their stomachs. In two years alone, 1987 and 1988, Golan produced 44 movies. If one movie bombed, money disappeared for the others. And their movies were always bombing.
“It’s pretty difficult to make a film when there were times we actually had no money in the bank,” Pyun says.
The new Blu-Ray version of “Captain America” includes a sad featurette, “Looking Back at ‘Captain America,’” with Pyun and Matt Salinger. Both seem like decent guys. Salinger says the script’s best scenes were cut due to lack of funds. “Character stuff,” he calls it. “Nuance.” Pickups were supposed to be done in Alaska but they never went to Alaska. An over-the-top, melodramatic soundtrack was added to over-the-top, whooshing sound effects, which were set against some not-good actors working from a script that actually disparages the WWII legacy of Captain America. And that’s how we wound up with this.
“We did the best we could,” Salinger says, sounding the movie’s epitaph, “given the time we had and the money we had.”
The final insult? Near the end of the movie, with the Red Skull defeated, Cap looks briefly at the camera and smiles. What does it recall? What does it consciously remind us of? Why, Christopher Reeve, as Superman, smiling at the camera at the end of “Superman: The Movie.” That was one of the best superhero movies ever made. This one?
This one did the best it could given the time and money it had.