Blu-ray Review: CAPTAIN AMERICA (1990)

BC reviews the Blu of CAPTAIN AMERICA (the other one).

It's almost hard to believe now, but there was a time where movies based on popular Marvel characters were few and far between - and most certainly NOT blockbusters. In fact, most of the early batch never even got proper theatrical releases here in the US; the Dolph Lundgren vehicle The Punisher was hacked up and dumped to video, and Roger Corman's Fantastic Four production never got released at all - though at least it was MADE, unlike an aborted attempt at Spider-Man that was set to be directed by Tobe Hooper at one point (!). The most prolific, I guess, was Captain America, directed by Albert Pyun. Sporting a decent cast (it features TWO reunions - Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin from A Christmas Story, and Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty from Deliverance) and focusing on a hero that didn't require the heavy special FX that Spidey or the F4 would require, on paper it seems like it could have worked.

And it kind of does, in its own little weird way - in that it actually feels like a movie that was adapted straight from a comic book, especially compared to the mega budget spectacles of today. While Iron Man 3 made efforts to be a little more grounded (at least in its second act, before people started breathing fire), for the most part our modern comic films have to deliver the heavy FX and giant set pieces, or else they are lost in the shuffle (Marvel doesn't even want to make a Daredevil movie despite getting the rights back, presumably because Matt Murdock won't be fighting giant robots and aliens). And I love those movies as much as anyone else, but it can't help but make their comic book counterparts feel small in comparison. Even Nolan's "realistic" take on Batman is still far more over the top than any 3-4 issue arc of Detective Comics or Batman, where Bats might punch a couple of guys, get tossed out of a window, and tussle with Clayface for a few panels - not fly the Batship around Gotham to get a nuke and fly it out of the city in time.

The 1990 Captain America, on the other hand, is exactly like a comic - Cap (Matt Salinger) gets into a few small scuffles and has a big fight with his nemesis at the end, but otherwise it's pretty talky and story driven. It's an origin story, of course, and while the details surrounding Steve Rogers are pretty close to the standard myth (weak guy accepts experimental serum so he can fight for his country; frozen for a while, thawed out in the modern day, etc), they completely rewrite the history of the Red Skull, which is probably the source of much of the film's derision. Those who tell Shane Black to fuck himself for "RUINING!" the Mandarin will likely have heart failure at the sight of this movie's Red Skull, an Italian guy named Tadzio de Santis, who as a child was the first to receive the super serum (an imperfect version of it) after his parents were killed. Now he has cheap face makeup, calls Cap his brother, and kidnaps the President in an effort to stop his pro-environmental/anti-military agenda.

So yeah, it's pretty goofy, and the movie's obviously small budget does it no favors. I think Captain America's costume is just one of those suits that will never NOT look goofy on-screen (Chris Evans didn't look much better, sorry), but they make it worse with the rubber ears (painfully obvious on this high def Blu-ray) and bland lighting - keep him in the shadows a bit! But I was charmed by how low-key it was; the big battle at the end is little more than Cap running around a castle and using his shield to knock some goons around, and/or engaging in fist fights with them. Skull also likes to punch people, though he mainly sticks to his machine gun for some reason (he's an abysmal shot, even for an action movie villain), and - in another refreshing change of pace - he's pretty much the only villain of note. He's got an evil daughter and some anonymous henchmen, and the President's general (McGavin) is a traitor, but they're not even scene-stealers, let alone "villains" of equal measure. In contrast, the upcoming sequel Winter Soldier has, well, the Winter Soldier (Bucky), who should be an antagonist for at least part of the movie, plus Crossbones and Batroc the Leaper.

Another thing I found charming was that BECAUSE they didn't have the money for big action scenes, it gave Rogers time to breathe as a character. It's actually kind of sad when he learns that he won't have any fellow super soldiers to fight alongside (the scientist got killed right after giving him the serum, and apparently didn't take notes), and again when he goes home and discovers that his girlfriend from the 40s waited nearly 20 years for him to return before finally finding someone else before she was too old to have children. One thing that bummed me out in the 2011 Captain America was that by keeping the entire thing in the 40s, we never got his "man out of time" thing that was always one of the more interesting things to me about his character, especially as it related to his ideals about the country he was fighting for. There was some of it in The Avengers, but not a hell of a lot - he had to fight for his screentime with 5 others. Hopefully the sequel (set in the present day) will focus on this, but with a dozen new characters and some Avengers carryovers, I'm guessing that big action sequences and fan service will take precedence.

I also liked seeing the President as a noble character. Not sure why so many modern movies have to use the President as a stooge (or just replace him outright like in the GI Joe 2), but Ronny Cox - who you'd almost EXPECT to be a jerk at the very least - has a fun arc; as a kid he saw Captain America save the White House from a missile attack, and has grown up wanting to meet him again. When he is kidnapped and then rescued by Cap, the two fight side by side for a while, which is just stupid enough to be endearing - he's getting to help his hero! Every boy's dream! It's almost like one of those knockoff comics you can order for your kid on his birthday, where Cap (or Spidey, or Superman) will say "I need YOUR help, _____!" (with the kid's name filled in, usually with a different font) and engaging in a very silly mission. Of course the President who idolized Cap as a boy will get to run around a castle with him, punching out bad guys with nearly equal skill! I'd even say it was a great entry point to comic book movies for your young kid if not for the opening scenes, where folks are gunned down and a little kid is the victim of a horrifying experiment.

Luckily, neither Salinger or director Pyun, who offer new interviews in the disc's sole extra, are under any belief that they've made a perfect film. They don't tear it apart, but the various production issues (money being taken away, a promised shoot in Alaska never actually occurring, etc) are explained in detail, though they don't get into the film's unfortunate release (basically direct to video). Salinger is pretty good-natured about the whole thing, he jokes about the costume (he apparently sweat out several pounds during the shoot) and the crazy Yugoslavian stuntmen, and it's hard not to feel a bit bad for Pyun, as this could have elevated him OUT of the B-movie arena if he got to make the movie he wanted to, and instead probably takes all the blame for its failure (for what it's worth, it's probably his best film that I've seen). His previous film was Cyborg, which helped make Van Damme a star and earned 10 million against a 500k budget (and his earlier effort The Sword & The Sorcerer actually outgrossed Excalibur, Krull, and the Conan sequel) - it's not ludicrous to believe that if this had worked out, he would have continued working theatrical features instead of retreating to helming junk like Arcade for Full Moon.

Pyun has been touring around with a "director's cut" of the film; I have to assume that its his original workprint and thus probably not of the best quality. It's a bummer that we couldn't at least see some of the deleted material as a standalone extra, as the disc could use some padding - it doesn't even have a scene selection menu (there are chapter stops, however). The transfer is fine, but a full commentary or those excised scenes would have been nice to have, since this isn't likely to be a double-dipped title. But it's still worth picking up for your superhero collection, or if you, like me, kind of wish that not every Marvel comic book movie had to be a 200 million dollar tentpole release.