CAPTAIN AMERICA II: DEATH TOO SOON is the second and final 1979 CBS TV-movie and after the stink bomb that is the first movie, you might be surprised to hear me say that it’s a shame this is the end of the line for the Reb Brown era.
DEATH TOO SOON is all sorts of goofy awesomeness, and if you just want to know if this is a movie you should track down, let me give you three factual statements about this movie:
1. Captain America uses an old woman as bait so he can beat up some thugs.
2. Steve Rogers drives around in his surfer van with a cat in the passenger seat.
3. Christopher Lee.
If that’s not enough to make you want to watch DEATH TOO SOON … I don’t even know you anymore.
DEATH TOO SOON opens with Steve Rogers painting a portrait of a nice old lady out in a public park. There’s all sorts of people milling about, having a grand ol’ time and then we see Steve sitting there all so serious and earnest, painting this nice old lady who tells Steve the old people around these here parts are scared because the local bad guys steal their pension checks. Steve is appalled by this, of course, and he tells Mrs. Shaw to point out the bad guys who he can go have stern words with them.
No, I’m just kidding. He tells the old lady to go cash her check. She does and when she leaves, the thugs close on her, which means Captain Freaking America is using this old lady as bait to draw some ruffians out into the open. The best part is that he doesn’t even stick all that close to her. We see her walking and being followed and then there goes Steve, pulling his van into a parking lot before blasting out the back on his super bike as the perp runs away with the old lady’s purse.
Cap beats up the bad guys and then tells them, “The old people around here are my friends.”
This is followed by Cap skipping town to go have an actual adventure. I like to think that in scenes we did not see, the Serpent Society is following Cap up the California coast, beating the crap out of old people Cap has sworn to protect before rolling on.
I was kinda worried at this point that DEATH TOO SOON would just give us more of the dopey Steve Rogers, but what follows is a rather good precursor to shows like Knight Rider and The A-Team, where our heroes help out those who need help protecting themselves from tough guys who really aren’t all that tough. A scientist named Ilson has been kidnapped by a terrorist named Miguel (Christopher Lee), who’s posing as a warden at a jail in Oregon. Ilson has been working on a magic aging potion, and Miguel plans to use it to blackmail the government into giving him cash before he bankrupts Social Security by making everyone age rapidly.
Christopher Lee is, of course, a cinematic legend and while it’s a bit surprising to see him turn up in a TV movie about a Captain America that never takes off his helmet, Lee is fully committed to the part (or really good at faking it). It’s a good thing Miguel and Captain America don’t share screen time until the end because Lee’s intensity would reduce Reb Brown to actual milquetoast.
Steve spends most of the movie in a small town where he makes nice with the beautiful Maid Helen Moore (Katherine Justice) and her young son. Miguel’s thugs keep trying to beat him up and Steve keeps beating them up, instead. Not that he doesn’t take his lumps. No one in the town wants to help him until Helen steps in after Steve has fought four or five of Miguel’s goons. There’s a kind of chaste sexuality going on between Steve and Helen. Steve’s this tall, musclebound dude, after all, and while Helen is not looking for a hero, she’s drawn to him in such a way that I’m pretty sure she got herself pregnant simply by being in Steve’s presence.
There’s some silly action scenes here, but whether Steve is battling some drugged up dogs or revealing that his bike can turn into a hang glider, it’s got a nice bit of old school charm to it. There’s a zip here that wasn’t there in the first film. Brown is clearly more comfortable playing a Steve Rogers who’s interested in being proactive rather than whining about not wanting to get involved, so if nothing else, the attitude adjustment makes DEATH TOO SOON better.
The best parts are Steve hanging around town, doing his investigating. Reb Brown gives Steve such a steadfast earnest banality that it becomes infectious after a while. Reb Brown does not make a great Comic Book Captain America, but he does make a good Whatever This Is Captain America because he’s incredibly consistent in his portrayal. This Cap doesn’t exactly come off as a human, but he does come across as an actual, individualized thing.
There’s a couple nice acting surprises here. Stanley Kamel (one of the All Time That Guys) plays Miguel’s assistant and Connie Sellecca plays a scientist working under Simon Mills (Len Birman). I’m pretty sure I remember reading an interview with John Tesh who said when he saw Ms. Sellecca in this role he knew he would make her his wife someday. I can’t find the link, but I’m sure it’s out there.
While DEATH TOO SOON is a TV movie, it feels like a regular episode of a show. If you cut out that old lady opening and tighten the action sequences, this could very well fill a 60-minute, rather than 2-hour, block of prime-time TV.
The actual threat of Miguel dumping his aging gas on Portland is almost inconsequential to the film. It’s just there to give Lee chances to chew scenery, and who’s going to complain about that? DEATH TOO SOON is miles away from being fantastic, but it is an enjoyable treat.