If you’re looking for a straight adaptation of the Captain America from the comic books, take a pass on CAPTAIN AMERICA, the 1979 television movie.
If you’re looking for a cracking good story, though, loaded with a really good script, really good acting, great action, and 97 minutes of awesomeness, then, well, take a pass on it, too.
CAPTAIN AMERICA is a rather dreadful production where the entire point seems to be to delay the arrival of Captain America as long as possible. If you just want to watch the Cap bits, then skip ahead to the 73 minute mark and watch the last 23 minutes of the special, because that’s how long it takes for Cap to show up. If you’re thinking, “Well, hey now, Cap is just the costume, but Steve Rogers is the man,” then I would say to you …. skip ahead to the 73 minute mark and watch the last 23 minutes of the special, because that’s how long it takes for anything close to the Steve Rogers you know and love to show up.
For those first 73 minutes, we get a Steve Rogers (Reb Brown) who just wants to “kick back and find out who I am.” He’s out of the military and all he’s got in the world is a customized van, a motorbike, and his sketch pad. Steve wants to cruise the Cali coast and just draw, man. Dr. Simon Mills (Len Birman) is a scientist who won’t get off his case. Mills worked with Steve’s dad as a grad assistant when the senior Rogers was developing a formula called FLAG (Full Latent Ability Gain). Steve’s dad administered the formula on himself and went out to stop evil-doers and stuff. He did wear the Captain America costume, but the movie doesn’t reveal this until right at the end. We just know that he’s the only person the formula ever worked on, which is why Simon wants Steve to agree to undergo the procedure.
Steve’s response is to stare dumbly forward, make excuses about just wanting to find himself, stare dumbly forward, and lash out with moderate annoyance.
There’s a mystery at play here, too. Steve’s old friend Jeff Haden is in trouble. Seems he’s been taking secret photographs of a top secret project for some bad guys, but he’s being blackmailed. When Steve arrives to help him, he’s already been roughed up to the point he’s minutes from dying. Haden’s daughter Tina shows up, apparently just to have a cute face make an appearance, because then she disappears from the narrative (being in shock from her father’s death) until the movie needs her to play damsel in distress in the final act.
All of this back and forth between Simon on the one hand and Jeff on the other is pretty tedious, made worse by the fact they’re connected, so Simon’s, “Hey, why don’t you come back to my lab?” routine is a constant irritant. That said, Birman delivers the best performance in the movie, so I’m torn between not wanting the character around because he’s annoying and wanting the actor around because he’s pretty good.
The bad guys keep trying to kill Steve because they fear him taking the FLAG formula, and eventually Steve ends up in the hospital. He’s going to die, so Birman gets to do what he’s been trying to do all along – pump him full of FLAG. The results are, of course, spectacular, as Steve gains super speed, super strength, super hearing, and the ability to stare super-dumbly forward.
Reb Brown is not terrible as Steve Rogers, but he’s not very good, either. It’s hard to blame him too much when the script is this daft, but he’s almost completely lacking in charisma. That said, I’m not sure where the charisma could have been included, since 50 minutes into this bad boy and he’s still whining about not wanting to get involved. Once his character starts being an active participant in the film, he gets a bit better. I don’t really think of Steve Rogers and Captain America being two different characters the way I do with Peter Parker and Spider-Man, Bruce Wayne and Batman, or Clark Kent and Superman, and while Steve/Cap don’t display the same kind of schism, we do get a very boring, non-active Steve Rogers transforming into a more active Captain America, and Brown definitely improves when we move into the Cap section of the narrative.
During Simon’s attempt to sweet talk Cap into becoming his newest lab mice (all the other lab mice keep dying), he has Steve’s van fancied up. Oh, it doesn’t look different. The outside still has a late ’70s surfer vibe to it and the inside is still furnished just enough to look like a normal person might own it, but now … now when you hit a button, panels start to slide away and in a few short days, enough wood paneling has folded out of the way to reveal a fancy super motorcycle.
Steve is like, “Gosh golly geez, this is super swell,” but all I can think is, “What happened to all my stuff? I mean, yeah, thanks, super bikes are awesome and stuff, but can I still use my van to make a burrito? Because this van also doubles as MY HOME and I am not cooking sausage dogs in the exhaust pipes of a bike, no matter how super it is!”
We get a few action sequences from here to the end of the film, but they all start and cool and become super prolonged. They have that feeling you get when you’re at a rock concert and it’s time for the drum solo. For a few minutes it’s cool, but then, well, you don’t want to be a dick or anything, but after listening to one guy bang on his drum kit for ten minutes, you’re wishing you’d taken this opportunity to hit the bathroom. Or buy a t-shirt. Or write a novel.
During Simon’s courtship of Steve, our future superhero draws Simon a picture of what Steve would look like in a costume if he eventually decides that’s what he wants to do. (That’s convenient.) Simon goes ahead and gets that costume made and it’s pretty ugly. It’s got red and white stripes but they run from his belt to his shoulders, so he ends up looking like Evil Knievel’s sidekick. (Who else would never take off their helmet?) The shield looks like it’s made of clear plastic. Simon tells Steve that it can be used as a devastating weapon, and to prove it, he throws the shield up into the air, where it hits nothing but sunlight before returning.
Cap ends up saving the day, of course, stopping the thugs from igniting their neutron bomb, but there’s never much action to get excited about. There is one really nice bit where Cap drives his superbike up a ramp (that just happens to be out in the desert), jumps off to latch onto a helicopter, and tosses a bad guy out of the copter and into a stream. It’s not quite as impressive as Logan’s jump in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but it’s not bad for a 1979 TV movie with no budget and no desire to be a superhero show.
And that’s where CAPTAIN AMERICA ultimately fails – it doesn’t want to be a superhero movie. It wants to be a movie about a guy who wants nothing to do with being a superhero before someone makes him one without his permission.
Not exactly the recipe for thrilling television.