Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

RECENT WATCHES: Captain America (1990)

Marvel’s superheroes took a long and knotted road to the big screen, almost as convoluted as their comic book histories. Around 1984, a near-bankrupt Marvel optioned Spider-Man and Captain America to legendary schlock factory Cannon Films. While “Spider-Man” was prepped for Tobe Hooper and then Joseph Zito, a “Captain America” film was prepared for Michael Winner. When Menahem Golan left Cannon in 1989 to head 21st Century Film Corporation, he took the “Cap” rights with him. Albert Pyun, another Cannon regular who was also attached “Spider-Man” at one point, would direct the finally-in-production film. Though intended for a 1990 theatrical release, ready to capitalize on the post-“Batman” buzz, Pyun’s “Captain America” would sit on a shelf for two years. Limping onto VHS and cable in 1992, the low-budget film would be quickly forgotten and overlooked. Today, Marvel fans treat it as an odd curio in the character’s history.

In Mussolini’s Italy, a child piano prodigy is kidnapped and turned into a deformed super soldier named the Red Skull. The project’s head scientist flees to America, helping the allies create their own super soldier. Polio-stricken artist Steve Rogers is the test subject, becoming the superheroic Captain America. While stopping a Red Skull plot to launch a missile at the White House, Cap goes into the Alaskan ice. Fifty years later, Steve awakens in modern America. While trying to put his life back together, Cap uncovers a plot by the still-alive Red Skull to kidnap and brainwash the current president.

Golan and Globus’ approach to Marvel’s characters was less than faithful. They originally conceived “Spider-Man” as a monster-filled horror movie, for example. Pyun, working with a script that was more faithful than earlier drafts, doesn’t go that far with “Captain America” but still makes many baffling changes. I don’t know why the Red Skull was changed from a Nazi to an Italian Fascist. More pressing, after the time jump, the villain’s skeletal features are covered up. So he’s just a normal mafioso dude with a scarred face for most of the movie. The film doesn’t draw from any comic storyline and largely has an out-of-costume Steve fighting generic bad guys in even more generic locations. At least Captain America’s suit and shield are comic accurate, though they look extremely rubbery.

Yet the deviations from established lore are among the film’s lesser problems. “Captain America” is largely troubled by a low budget. The film is so determined to get to the modern day setting, that Captain America learns his entire history in the course of a plane ride. The fascist base he infiltrates is composed of that fake rocket, a big flag, and a catwalk. That’s it. Once he awakens in the modern day, Steve is chased through the Canadian countryside, the Los Angeles suburbs, and an Italian villa. The action scenes have similarly low stakes. One of the film’s action highlights involves Cap awkwardly wrestling with a nun-chunk wielding karate guy in the (very dark) basement of an anachronistic diner. The chase scenes and shoot-outs are largely listless in their execution. That is when they aren’t goofy as hell anyway. The many blurry shots of Captain America throwing his mighty shield, which wobbles through the air like a dollar store frisbee, induces chuckles, not thrills.

I might’ve forgiven the skimpy production values if the script wasn’t so cheesy. When discovered in the modern day Arctic, Captain America just gets up and casually walks away. The villains’ plots, trying to blow up the White House with a cartoonish rocket or brainwash the President, strike the viewer as childish. The way the script links Captain America and the Carter-esque President Kimble are similarly ham-fisted, Kimble spotting Cap when he was a boy. (The kid-friendly tone is occasionally interrupted by burst of ultra-violent gunshot wounds.) The conspiratorial elements of the story — the Red Skull is apparently responsible for the Kennedy and King assassinations — are interesting, especially with how the military-industrial complex is conspiring against the president. Yet it’s rendered fangless by rooting itself so solidly in 1990, with the bad guys hating the president’s environmentally conscious policies. And these are just the broader plot issues. There are other little bits of sloppy writing, like a journal sitting undisturbed for fifty years or a loose screw in a cell door going unnoticed.

More than anything else, the underwhelming treatment of its titular character is “Captain America’s” biggest undoing. This Captain America is kind of wimpy. He’s tossed into combat with little training and goes into hibernation after his first mission. He spends a chunk of the movie pinning for his now geriatric former girlfriend. The film then teams her up with her sassy valley girl daughter, who is in many ways a more motivated and interesting protagonist but also a hilariously campy artifact of the time. One of Cap’s favorite strategic moves is to feign car sickness, leap out of a vehicle, and then leap back in after the driver goes to check on him. He does this twice! Matt Salinger, most famous for being JD Salinger’s son, has the right look for Captain America: Broad shoulders and stout chin, blonde hair, dreamy blue eyes. Yet his characterization is maudlin and lacking in confidence, playing Cap as a lovelorn puppy who stumbles into most of his greatest achievements.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this “Captain America” is most of interest for its unintentional humor. There’s several hilariously sappy songs on the soundtrack. The supporting cast includes hammy turns from Ned Beatty and Darren McGavin. (Ronny Cox is unusually sincere as the president and Scott Paulin mugs hideously as the Red Skull.) The unsteady special effects are funny, such as when the Red Skull has his arm chopped off. But I found the story’s small scope more dispiriting than amusing. A Pyun-directed and Golan-produced “Captain America,” a low budget and cheesy predecessor to Marvel’s later cinematic success, sounded like a fascinating proposition. The truth is, though not without moments of campy laughs, this “Captain America” is as forgettable and unenergetic as its reputation suggests. [4/10]

No comments: