Captain America (1990) – Directed by Albert Pyun – Starring Matt Salinger, Ronny Cox, Scott Paulin, Ned Beatty, Darren McGavin, Francesca Neri, Michael Nouri, and Bill Mumy.
It’s hard for me to call any superhero movie the worst superhero movie of all time given the existence of Catwoman, but the 1990 CAPTAIN AMERICA movie is definitely hanging out in Patience Phillips’ neighborhood.
What definitively elevates CAPTAIN AMERICA above that turkey for me is that, unlike Catwoman, this film isn’t a complete and utter disaster on the conceptual level. I get the feeling that the hearts of the people involved in this film are largely in the right place, even if I don’t feel like there’s a whole ton of fondness for the characters here. It feels like they’re trying to make an action movie instead of an elongated perfume ad – they just don’t have the skill to pull it off.
There are some head-scratching decisions here (the Red Skull being Italian the most egregious) but I don’t get too worked up over those kinds of changes. I’m more interested in movies getting the spirit of a character or story right, and in creating something that works in the context of the movie, and even though the Skull is now a part of the Mussolini regime instead of Hitler’s, the Red Skull (Scott Paulin) is far from the worst part of this movie. He’s still a scheming bastard, he still hates America, and he still hates Captain America because Steve Rogers is prettier.
Catwoman had a budget of $100 million while CAPTAIN AMERICA’s budget came in at $10 million, but even though CAP cost only 10% of what the Berry clunker cost, it’s not the budget that sinks this film. The producers have managed to assemble a pretty decent cast of character actors here: Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox, Michael Nouri, and Darren McGavin all have roles in the movie, and they must have cost something above scale, yes? If they did, I’d rather have seen the producers cast a bunch of unknowns in those roles since none of these parts really gain anything by having a name actor inhabit them, and whatever money they saved here could have been spent on casting a better lead. If all of these name actors did receive the industry minimum, then I wish the casting agents had employed whatever voodoo they used on them to get someone better than Matt Salinger to play Cap.
Movies like this rarely rise or fall simply because of the casting of the lead actor, and CAPTAIN AMERICA is no different. Yes, Matt Salinger is terrible. He is a very stiff, very unnatural actor, blessed with seemingly no athletic ability. How little athletic ability does he have? When the Red Skull, in a full-length leather jacket that would restrict one’s movement, is kicking the stuffing out of him, I fully believe it.
Steve Rogers goes from polio-stricken kid who can’t get into the military to first (and only) American recipient of the super soldier formula (created and administered by an Italian scientist who defected to the U.S. after the Italians subjected a kid to an earlier version of the formula – said kid growing up to become the Red Skull) to flying into battle with the Red Skull in about five minutes. Fittingly, Rogers gets his junk handed back to him by the Skull, and then he gets his rookie ass tied to the side of a rocket that the Italians are aiming at Washington, DC.
They fire the rocket and Cap stops it from crashing into the White House by kicking one of the wings, and he ends up crashing into the ice up in Alaska. The more interesting part of this sequence is that a kid is outside when the rocket approaches and he ends up taking an unclear picture of Cap strapped to the rocket. Tommy and his best friend Sam try to figure out who it is, name-checking both the Sub Mariner (pronounced in the film as Sub-Mareener) and the Human Torch.
One of the things that CAPTAIN AMERICA does well is invest in the idea of the passage of time. Steve makes the journey from the 1940s to the 1990s frozen in a block of ice, but when he awakes, a good number of people from his time are now shuffling around as fifty-year-older versions of themselves. Tommy is now the President of the United States (Cox), Sam is a reporter (Beatty), his Forever Love Bernie (Kim Gillingham) is now married to some other guy and with an adult daughter named Sharon (also Gillingham), General Fleming (Bill Mumy) is now, er, General Fleming (Darren McGavin) and working with the Red Skull, who has gone from a guy with a red face to a guy with a flesh face. (Fun side note that I just learned from Wikipedia: Scott Paulin is currently playing Kate Beckett’s father on Castle. How does Nathan Fillion not have endless pictures of himself, dressed in a Cap t-shirt, fake-punching Paulin?)
All of these characters are loosely connected via Captain America, and so when Cap returns, their lives begin physically connecting. Relax, though, it’s not like a Paul Thomas Anderson film suddenly breaks out (although that would be awesome) – I just mean that all these people start punching one another.
Cap is dug out of the ice by a research crew up in Alaska. When he breaks out of the ice, he starts walking. And walking. And walking. All the way out of Alaska, in fact. When the news of Cap’s return hits the papers (and I love that the POTUS finds out from reading the paper, too), Sam goes looking for him. Steve is totally confused when people start shooting at him, but then Ned Beatty pulls up in his crummy pick-up truck to rescue him.
Yes, let’s all agree that the reason Captain America couldn’t defeat two people with guns who were running after him is because he’s tired from walking out of Alaska and into Canada, and that’s why he needs Ned Beatty to save him. Anyway, Ned Beatty pulls away and Cap thinks this is all a ruse. After all, Sam’s driving a German car and has a “Made in Japan” recorder. Steve feigns being sick to get Sam out of the truck, and then he steals it and takes off, eventually winding his way back to California, where he finds Bernie married to a character actor you will recognize by face instead of name (it’s Wayde Preston, and this was his last role before his death in 1992). In the best scene of the entire movie, Steve is standing outside of the house when Bernie’s daughter Sharon pulls in. He mistakes her for Bernie, says, “Bernie” as he reaches out to touch her all creepy-pervert style, and Sharon slugs him in the face with a six-pack of cans.
It’s pretty funny.
After talking to Bernie, and then watching VHS tapes (ask your parents, kids) full of all the world’s history since he went Popsicle, Steve finally realizes that what he’s experiencing isn’t some Nazi trick, but reality.
Said reality comes crashing down hard on him when a phone call informs them that there’s been an attack at Bernie’s house. Steve’s old flame been killed by agents of the Red Skull, so Cap and Sharon head to the old secret lab where Steve became Cap (it’s still there, forgotten beneath a diner, its entrance hidden behind the wall in a lady’s restroom), and there’s another fight with some Skull agents, and then Steve and Sharon are off to Italy to track down the Skull and put a stop to this. In Italy there’s a big fight, of course, and Cap defeats his nemesis by distracting him with audio footage of the murder of his parents. As a boy, the Skull was taken from his parents by force, and then forced to watch them be slaughtered by the same men who turned him into the Skull.
The same people he ends up working for.
I know, right? Fascists make no sense.
The contemporary Skull has kidnapped President Ronny Cox because President Ronny Cox is a stinking environmentalist. In other words, this is a message film, and the message is … um … if you like trees, the Red Skull is going to kidnap you.
When you simply write out what happens in CAPTAIN AMERICA, it really doesn’t seem that bad. The foundation is here to do something solid, and director Albert Pyun does a decent job directing the action sequences. There are moments – like the first Cap/Skull fight – where the movie borders on something even beyond mediocrity, but these moments are too few and too far between. Unfortunately, Salinger and Gillingham have to carry the movie, and they just don’t have the skill to do it. Whenever they’re on the screen, the film just sinks and sinks and sinks. It’s a shame because the Cap costume looks pretty good, the story is pretty good, the action is pretty good, and the pacing is pretty good.
But the acting – and this applies to just about everyone in the film except for Ronny Cox, who manages to not be embarrassing – is pretty terrible.
The most perplexing part of the movie (other than the casting of Salinger – how did anyone think he was ready at this stage in his career to be the star of a major motion picture?) is how much of a wimp Cap is throughout the film. Almost every single time someone attacks him, he runs away! In Canada, in California, in Italy, it doesn’t matter! If you attack Captain America, Captain America will turn tail and run away from you.
I think President Ronny Cox punches out more people than Cap during the final battle.
And I’m not kidding.
Unfortunately, this really is a bad movie. Even though there are parts here that work CAPTAIN AMERICA is largely a joyless, sub-par B-movie. Unlike it’s B-movie Marvel counterpart, the Roger Corman-produced The Fantastic Four, CAPTAIN AMERICA doesn’t ooze with that sense that anyone involved here has loads of comic book love, and that can help make a mediocre film more watchable to comic book fans, I think. At least, it does for me. When watching CAPTAIN AMERICA, it just feels like they’re making an action movie where the lead wears a bright costume and no one is committed to the premise.