Captain America (1991)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Barb Wire

The Phantom

Zorro's Black Whip

Captain America

Lava Lamp

Our rating: one LAVA® motion lamp.

Salinger gets a look
at his paycheck.
Captain America has been around a lot longer than most superheroes. (Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created him in March of 1941.) He has never been among the first tier of comic book heroes, at least as far as the mainstream, non-nerd populace is concerned. He doesn't have the instant name recognition of Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man. But we have always been fond of old wing-head, mostly because of his indomitable spirit and steady sense of right and wrong. Sure, he has enhanced strength and reflexes, and that shield is nothing to be trifled with, but for the most part he's a regular Joe who just wants to serve his country. Cap is A-OK in our book.

In case you don't know the story, Captain America is actually Steve Rogers. He was a sickly young man who wanted to fight for his county in World War II, but he didn't qualify for the army. He jumped at the chance to undergo an experimental process that turned him into a super soldier. He donned a red, white, and blue costume and fought Germany. But towards the end of the war he ended up as a popsicle in the North Sea. Years later he was found, defrosted without ill effects, and he joined the current crop of Marvel Comics superheroes.

If the Olympics were more like this,
everybody would watch.

Besides a really cool costume (chain mail and buccaneer boots never go out of style!) and the shield that he can throw with amazing accuracy, Captain America's main weapon is his fighting patriotic spirit. Whether doing battle with his archenemy The Red Skull, or taking on huge robots like the Sleepers, Cap never gives up. He never says die. Nobody could beat Captain America.

Nobody that is, until Albert Pyun came along.

Pyun is the incredibly prolific director of crappy action movies like Spitfire, the Nemesis series, and Cyborg. Pyun's films are known for meandering dialogue and cinematography that occasionally looks like it was done by people who graduated film school. Or at least high school. Pyun also has the very special ability to edit action scenes in such away that even if they were choreographed properly, they still end up looking silly. Take the climatic fight of Kickboxer IV: The Aggressor. The good guy and the bad guy square off. It starts okay, as they fight in the Ring of Death™, but then they end up throwing each other on top of portable tables that were set up earlier for the outdoor buffet. Suddenly the fight goes from a death match to a couple of sweaty guys busting up a bar mitzvah. Putting Pyun in charge of making a Captain America movie is like putting Joel Schumacher in charge of a Batman movie, a mistake so obvious Hollywood only made it twice.

Tiffany takes Debbie Gibson hostage.

Italy, 1936. Fascist soldiers burst into an idyllic household for the purposes of kidnapping a young child. They top off this overkill by murdering the kid's entire family while he watches. What is the purpose of all this? Nazi scientists have invented a technique to create a super soldier, but for some reason they decided that the best subject for this process would be a traumatized kid. We're told that this kid in question is wanted "for his superior intelligence," but the only skill he exhibits on screen is the ability to play the piano pretty well. So long as his enemies can't stand the sound of Brahms, he's invincible.

One of the scientists on the project, Dr. Vaselli (Carla Cassola) objects to using a young boy as a subject, so she flees to America. Naturally, the U.S. Army welcomes the expatriated Nazi lady scientist with open arms, and seven years later they are ready to try an improved super-soldier process on some lucky volunteer. Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger), a lanky all-American boy with polio, is that lucky volunteer. This being an Albert Pyun film, the Army's lab is in what looks like an abandoned factory underneath a diner. (In Trancers 3, the secret base was located beneath a strip club, which at least had the advantage of strippers. We bet Pyun wishes he had thought of that.) The process goes well (sparks and steam fly everywhere so that we know something happened, possibly the Quickening), but immediately after the process is completed Dr. Vaselli is killed by a Nazi agent. Steve is also shot several times, but he uses his newfound strength to kill the Ratzi bastard.

Two days later a miraculously healed Cap is dropped into Germany to stop the launch of a new Nazi rocket. During his trans-Atlantic flight, he is told that Dr. Vaselli kept no notes on the super-soldier process. Nor did she leave plans on how to reproduce the "fireproof" rubber body condom Cap wears (the characters themselves deride it as a clown suit), or the nifty bulletproof shield he carries. "You're the only one of you there's ever gonna be," intones his commanding officer. There are a dozen better ways that we can think of for making Captain America one-of-a-kind: a rare element is necessary to the process, the serum is dependent on a rare blood-type, or perhaps there is even a fire that destroys the research records. But a scientist who keeps everything in her head? What a load of crap. Even more laughable is the fact that the plot later revolves around information contained in one of Dr. Vaselli's diaries.

"Hi, I'm Captain America, and
I'm here to tell you about
the amazing Ab-Roller!"

But let us return to the Captain, who has dropped in on the Nazi agents just in time to stop the missile from launching. Or, as things turn out, just in time to be knocked silly by the Red Skull, the subject of Dr. Vaselli's previous experiment. For some unfathomable reason, the facially disfigured but physically and mentally enhanced young man has pledged loyalty to his Nazi captors and plans to destroy the White House with his new rocket. After being strapped to the rocket, Cap's best answer to this plan is to grab the Skull's arm and make idle threats about taking his adversary into orbit as a travel companion. In retort, the Skull does not wrest free of Captain America's grasp. Nor does he simply shoot Cap to make him let go. No, the Nazi superman genius instead cuts off his own hand as the missile makes for the sky. This is a good thing for our hero, though – if he survives his somewhat speedier trip back across the Atlantic Ocean, at least he'll be matching wits with someone at his own mental level.

Judging by the rocket's speed when it reaches Washington, the flight must have taken a considerable number of hours. But it takes Rogers until the last few seconds of that flight to come up with a workable plan for throwing the missile off target. What, did he nap on the way over? Were there in-flight movies he hadn't seen? This "plan" consists of a few swift kicks to the side of the rocket, which throws it off course and lands it harmlessly in the Alaskan tundra. Alaska? That thing had enough fuel to make it to Alaska? Man, those Nazi guys knew how to build rockets. Too bad their explosives were so shoddy though – there isn't even a good kaboom when the missile touches down.

The missile did make some impact, though – as Steve courageously kicks his way to America's salvation, a young Thomas Kimball takes pictures and wonders who the sad sack is who's tied to the rocket. Now we ask you, dear readers – what will happen to this young boy?

A. He'll grow up to be an auto mechanic with three failed marriages.
B. He'll be bitten by a radioactive spider and be imbued with superhuman powers.
C. He'll grow up to be President so that the Red Skull can capture him and Captain America can save him decades later.

If you chose C, congratulations! You too can write an Albert Pyun movie.

Heads are about to roll
down at the copy desk.

The passage of time to the early '90s is accomplished through newspaper headlines of the biggest events of the decades and Thomas Kimball's relentless march to the Presidency. Look closely, and you'll notice that most the headlines have typos. (There's a city called "Sprinfield" in Ohio?) Look even closer and you'll see that the texts below those headlines are all from the same story, about the child-endangering fall-out from an ex-Padres player's divorce.

A lot has changed in 50 years. Kimball is President and the Red Skull has gone back to living under his own name, (mostly) reconstructed his face, and produced a brood of model-attractive kids that he uses as his terrorist army. Captain America has been frozen in Alaska all this time, but recently he has been found and freed from the ice. Cap wanders into Canada where the Red Skull's murderous progeny and enterprising reporter Sam Kolawetz (Ned Beatty!) find him at the exact same time. When Captain America has to be rescued by Ned Beatty, something is very, very wrong. Cap steals Sam's car and heads to California, where his old girlfriend Bernice (Kim Gillingham) lived.

Amazingly, Bernice lives in the same house she did in the '40s. Even more amazingly, she is played by the same actress, sporting some of the worst old age make up ever seen on screen. They've added lumps to her cheeks that look like they contain alien broodlings that will burst forth and kill everyone around her. The decision to use Gillingham in both time periods might be seen as a cost-cutting measure, but when it came to portraying another character in the two time periods, they used Bill Mumy to play the younger version of Darren McGavin. So maybe Pyun just thought Gillingham was a good enough actress to pull it off. She isn't. Pyun even gives Gillingham a third role, that of Bernice's daughter Sharon, who becomes Cap's sidekick for the rest of the film. Pyun's track record for picking female stars remains uniformly awful.

"...and now that I have captured
the Cadbury bunny, I shall
have all his delicious
creme-filled eggs for myself!"

The remainder of the film revolves around the Red Skull's plot to kidnap President Kimball (Ronny Cox) and fit him with a mind-control brain implant. Cap and Sharon are caught up in the plot when the Skull sends his assassin daughters to kill Rogers. In typical low budget movie-assassin form, the girls kill everyone in the vicinity but Rogers, thereby leaving Cap and Sharon to pursue the evildoers who would dare to do harm to an actress in bad age makeup and Ned Beatty. After a quick visit to the old secret lab pick up Dr. Vaselli's notes (which, we'll remind you, ought to be non-existent but actually contain the key to the Skull's true identity, which they somehow know the Skull is using), Cap and Sharon make for Italy to avenge the loss of their friends and family. Oh yeah, and to rescue the President too.

To be fair to Albert Pyun, most of the faults we have described thus far are inherent in the screenplay, written by Stephen Tolkin. Tolkin castrates Cap at every turn, first failing to provide the hero with any patriotic motives or sentiments, and then by portraying him as something of a jerk. The DC comics universe features a hero named Mr. Terrific, who wears the motto "Fair Play." If Tolkin's Captain America wore a motto, it would be "Cheap Tricks." Not that these cheap tricks would fool a three year-old. His favorite ploy is to tell a car's driver that he is feeling sick. Would they please pull over? When they do, he trots to the side of the road and bends over until the driver comes out to ask how he's feeling. Then he runs back to the car, hops into the driver's seat, and runs off.

Ooo! Shoulda used Oil of Olay.

We can see how this might work on Ned Beatty. After all, besting Beatty in a footrace probably isn't too difficult. But the entire plan relies on the driver leaving the keys in the ignition, which is far from a foregone conclusion. Still, Cap manages to successfully pull this trick twice during the film's running time.

One of Cap's other silly tricks occurs during the rocket launch at the film's beginning. Rogers lures the Red Skull within reach by telling him, "I want to tell you something." As any younger sibling can tell you, "I want to tell you something" is code for "come over here, I want to pound on you." The proper response is "I can hear you just fine over here." We're surprised Cap didn't try to tell the Red Skull "You have something on your tie" during their second scrap.

It is sometimes said that a hero can be judged by the caliber of his enemies, in which case this Captain America ranks somewhere below Super Chicken. His adversaries are exclusively Eurotrash punks who look like they decided to kill Captain America on the way to that stylish club in Milan. That it takes the hero a full 97 minutes to take these guys out is an insult to Captain America, his creators, and anyone who ever spent an enjoyable afternoon reading the adventures of the greatest patriot in comic books.

Review date: 05/19/2002

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