It’s a credo of mine to avoid films with the name “Menahem Golan” listed in the credits, with scant exception; the thrilling – and tragically underseen – Runaway Train is among them. Remember Mr. Golan? He and his producing partner, Yoram Globus, both Israeli-born, were the guiding hands behind Cannon Pictures, an outfit that loomed over ‘80s Hollywood, generally enduring indifference from the Oscar-voting community. Cannon churned out B-grade action-adventures and thrillers, but ironically, ran aground when they began mounting serious work, coupled with a hubristic expansion plan. By the time Captain America(1992) appeared, Cannon was more or less sleeping with the fishes, so this film was released under a different portico, but Golan signed on as producer, and the ghosts of his former company definitely inhabit this flick.
Helmed by veteran action-hackster Albert Pyun, it’s been touted by some as “the original Captain America” movie, but in fact, there are are three which precede it, including two 1979 network TV outings, and a black-and-white theatrical serial produced during the Second World War. Production values of this version seem equivalent to those of the made-for-tv pair, in which Cap – in a distracted performance from musclebound Reb Brown—seems lost in a Stephen J. Cannell show, with super-villains completely replaced by megalomaniacal scientists.
Although less renowned than Spiderman or the Man in the Red Cape, Captain America is no stranger to the comic book cognoscenti. I was weaned on the tale of Steve Rogers, towheaded ‘40s youth, an earthbound Luke Skywalker if you will, eager to join the war effort and battle the Nazis, but much too scrawny to qualify for combat duty. But wait…the military provides the ace in Rogers’ sleeve: a top-secret formula designed to create a cadre of ‘super-soldiers’, men with chemically-enhanced physical strength and speed. To make this digression brief, Rogers gets his wish, tackling the Third Reich and its hideous Vaderesque pitchman The Red Skull, becoming America’s White Knight, only to later be frozen in suspended animation for decades, and revived after being discovered in the Arctic.
Pyun’s Captain America doesn’t stray far from this mythology, but that’s neither a jibe or a compliment, merely an observation. Cap is played here by Matt Salinger – yes, the son of that Salinger – and he’s clearly miscast, if no more so than Brown in this film’s television predecessors. Steve Rogers is correctly presented as the ‘All-American’ blue-eyed blonde, the product of a quiet Southern California beach ‘burg, yearning for adventure and brimming with wide-eyed patriotism, and Salinger is physically appropriate for this characterization, but he also seems a few years too old, his face a bit weatherbeaten, to play this fresh-faced exemplar of American wholesomeness. Beyond that, there’s little indication that he’s much of an actor; his Steve Rogers seems a lifeless wimp, and his zeal for wartime glory unconvincing.
Happily, the same can’t be said for Cap’s nemesis, played unrecognizably by character veteran Scott Paulin. Paulin’s Red Skull is a delightfully twisted exploitation film heavy, serving up an ethnically unplaceable accent – a evil Ricardo Montalban comes to mind – which is nonetheless dripping with sinister intent. In the present-day sequences, the Skull heads a SPECTRE-like ultra-right wing cabal bent on global destruction, and it’s even revealed that they arranged the King and Bobby Kennedy assasinations. This nefarious organization wants to off the President (Ronny Cox) because of his support of radical environmental-protection policies.
This Captain America was clearly a rush job in which careful attention to detail was hurled out the window. The opening scene, with Italian dialogue and set in Mussolini’s war-mongering republic, is almost devoid of subtitles. This sort of omission works if the filmmaker is deliberately trying to keep the audience in the dark, but there’s no evidence of such ambition here. Another sequence – and perhaps I just need glasses—seems to actually use matte painting in the backdrop, and that’s unforgivable in a film of this vintage. Not surprisingly, third-rate special effects abound, including a particularly cheesy sequence in which our hero steers an enemy missile away from the White House, and it doesn’t look much more authentic than in action serials from the studio era.
As with many “B” flicks, the narrative is also too rushed; the story unfolds at warp-speed, as Steve launches into battle just 18 minutes in, sans any scenes of combat training or much backstory. He’s ultimately a cipher, not really a flesh-and-blood character.
The ‘80s – the film was shot in 1989 – were probably the nadir of woeful action film scores, and this Captain America unapologetically rides that bandwagon. One almost prays for complete silence in numerous scenes.
Crafting a superior adventure film is a difficult balancing act, particularly when dealing with pop culture icons; you have to conjure up a satisfying blend of tragic pathos, knowing humor, and heroic thrills. I think Richard Donner’s Superman(1978) achieves this for the first 90 minutes, albeit suffers in the third act. Captain America lacks the lavish budget that Donner’s film luxuriated in, but it’s also crippled by a lack of desire to explore the themes that this film only touches on. It’s no surprise that it headed directly to video shops in the States, though there was a small theatrical release in other territories. Sadly, there’s an impressive pedigree of talent here; Stephen Tolkin and Lawrence J. Block penned the script, and supporting players include Ned Beatty, the late Darren McGavin, Michael Nouri(in a Southern twang), and the always-dependable Ronny Cox.
As for this DVD ‘package’, extras are non-existent, and the movie is presented in full-frame(!), only adding insult to injury.
I once had a friend who was an unabashed devotee of Batman, and proudly proclaimed that he would see any film featuring the Dark Knight, simply because, “It’s Batman.” I suppose one would have to feel similarly about Captain America to find much enjoyment in this edition. Whatever quibbles one may have with Joe Johnston’s now-in-theaters tentpole Captain America: The First Avenger, comparing it to Pyun’s version is akin to screening The Godfather alongside Bella Mafia. Still, Marvel geeks/collectors may insist on owning a copy. If so, they can have mine.