Captain America

1992, Movie, PG-13, 97 mins

Review

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Unlike DC Comics mainstays Batman and Superman, Marvel Comics characters have made distinctly unheroic leaps to the silver screen, with financial misfires like THE PUNISHER and, most notably, HOWARD THE DUCK. Having recently marked his 50th anniversary in print, Captain America is the latest Marvel icon to suffer a rattletrap cinematic treatment with this 1990 effort, belatedly released to home video.

The plot remains faithful to the WWII orgins of Captain America, which is a bit of a drawback in itself; classic though he is, Captain America is easily the squarest crime fighter in Marvel's stable, preceding editor Stan Lee's popular 1960s formula for "heroes with hang-ups," flawed titans with neuroses and troubled personal lives. CAPTAIN AMERICA tries to bridge the generations with a wildly convoluted storyline.

It opens in Italy circa 1936, where Mussolini's stormtroopers seize a boy genius and subject him to "Project Rebirth," fiendish experiments to create Axis super warriors. The child emerges, hideously scarred and inhumanly strong, as a bad guy dubbed the Red Skull (Scott Paulin). The scientist behind Project Rebirth, Dr. Maria Vasseli (Carla Cassola), rebels and defects to the US, where she perfects the process for the Allies. Amid low-tech sparking and crackling, polio-stricken volunteer Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger), is thus transformed into a mighty blond hunk. Directly afterwards a Nazi spy assassinates Dr Vasseli, leaving pumped-up Rogers, code-named Captain America, as our secret hope for victory over the Red Skull. "He'll be the living symbol of what this country stands for," says an official as Rogers, outfitted in his trademark red, white and blue tights (explained as a custom-made fireproof uniform), parachutes into enemy territory to tackle the superfoe.

But the Red Skull beats up Captain America, fastens him to a flying bomb and launches the early ICBM at Washington, DC. The warhead is about to strike the White House when Captain America at last thinks to kick its tailfin and send it offcourse. The rocket lands in Alaska, where Captain America remains frozen until 1993, when he's thawed out by surveyors. In the meantime the Red Skull has become a conspiracy theorist's dream, masterminding all kinds of wickedness for the highest bidder (his crimes include the murders of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King). Now Mr. Skull is being consulted by the pollution industry, who want to eliminate the new environmental-activist US President Tom Kimball (Ronny Cox).

Kimball's best buddy, newspaperman Sam Kolawetz (Ned Beatty) has spent years piecing together the story of the Red Skull, and he recognizes the escaped iceman as Captain America. So does the Red Skull, who sends some bored-looking henchmen to terminate the hero. With Kolawetz's help Steve Rogers makes his way back to his boyhood home in California and reunites with his long-ago sweetheart, now old and married to someone else. She's conveniently killed by the Red Skull's agents, leaving daughter Sharon (Kim Gillingham plays both mother and offspring) to accompany Rogers to Italy for a final confrontation with the meanies who have kidnapped President Kimball and are preparing him for a mind control implant.

The wide-ranging story keeps Captain America sidelined most of the time, well away from the center of things until the climactic battle (when he finally dons his tights again). In fact, so much time is spent on the Red Skull that one wonders why they didn't name the picture after him instead. With his mutilated face clumsily masked by plastic surgery, the Red Skull looks like a gangster grotesque from DICK TRACY, and the screenplay tries hard to work up a touch of tragic pathos for him in the end.

Historically, Captain America has always been at something of a loss without a war to fight, and the tale's abrupt switch from anti-fascist heroics to ecological concern takes some force out of the character. As Rogers, stage and screen actor Matt Salinger (REVENGE OF THE NERDS, POWER) is valiant but stiff, and he gets into an annoying habit--shared by all the good guys here, as in comics--of letting his mouth hang open stupidly. His superpowers are never really defined, so it's hard to tell what Rogers could or could not survive (the same is true for the Red Skull, thus assuring his resurrection for any sequels). Physically, Salinger (the son of J.D. Salinger) is augmented by a padded muscle suit that emphasizes rippled abdominals, but leaves his arms relatively skinny; as a result, Captain America seems to sport a formidable beer gut--perhaps he moonlights as Bud Man.

The special effects rely heavily on stunts (when they try anything else, like the flying bomb, they look pretty threadbare), a logical choice for veteran martial arts director Albert Pyun (CYBORG), whose action sequences often verge on incoherency. Pyun's major achievement in CAPTAIN AMERICA is keeping the knotted plot understandable, but, along with screenwriters Stephen Tolkin and Laurence Block, he works in some cute touches in the quieter moments. Two kids (the young Tom Kimball and Sam Kolawetz, in fact) witness one of Cap's 1943 feats and debate who this costumed hero could be, name-dropping a roster of comic characters from the Human Torch to the Sub-Mariner. Then in 1993 a newly revived Captain America is alarmed by all the German and Japanese-made consumer goods he sees.

Pyun isn't above a gaffe, though. Look closely at an old-timey montage that chronicles Tom Kimball's political ascension via newspaper articles. Though the Kimball-oriented headlines keep changing, the text underneath doesn't--and it's readable as a divorce scandal involving one of the San Diego Padres. (Violence, profanity.) leave a comment

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