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CAPTAIN AMERICA (1992)

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"Dr Vaselli, a scientist who escaped from Italy, has perfected a process that can take a boy with birth defects and make him as fast and as strong as an athlete. Hitler already has a version of this ‘super soldier’, an Italian boy called "The Red Skull". We will have a regiment of these men, and we’ve found our first volunteer out in California. His name is Steve Rogers…."

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Director: Albert Pyun

Starring: Matt Salinger, Ronny Cox, Kim Gillingham, Ned Beatty, Darren McGavin, Scott Paulin, Michael Nouri, Bill Mumy, Carla Cassola, Francesca Neri, Garette Ratliff

Screenplay: Stephen Tolkin, from a story by Stephen Tolkin and Lawrence Block, based upon characters created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

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Synopsis: In Portovenere, Italy, in 1936, a child prodigy is abducted by the Nazis and forced to watch as his family is slaughtered. Inside the Fortress Lorenzo, a demonstration is held to show how an ordinary rat was converted into a strange, muscular creature of twice the normal strength and intelligence. The inventor of this process, Dr Vaselli (Carla Cassola), is horrified when she sees that her process is about to be applied to the kidnapped boy. When she objects, she is seized by the guards, but manages to escape. As she flees the fortress, she hears the boy screaming in agony…. In California, seven years later, a young polio victim called Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger) is bidding his family and friends goodbye. His girlfriend, Bernie (Kim Gillingham), promises to wait for him forever. A car comes for Steve. Inside is Dr Vaselli, who has given her process to the United States government. Steve is the first volunteer for "Project Rebirth". Colonel Louis (Michael Nouri) is taken by Lt Fleming (Bill Mumy) to a secret laboratory where Steve is subjected to Dr Vaselli’s process, which strengthens and perfects the muscles of his body. As the experiment is declared a success, a Nazi posing as a government observer reveals himself and shoots Dr Vaselli. He also shoots Steve, but Steve manages to fight back, forcing the spy into some electrical equipment, where the shock kills him. As Steve recovers from his wounds, Colonel Louis reveals that the Nazis have a new guided missile trained on an American target. Steve rises from his hospital bed. Shortly afterwards, he has assumed his new identity of "Captain America", donning a fire-proof suit and carrying a shield which he can use as a flying weapon, both of these devised by Dr Vaselli. Steve is parachuted near to the Nazi bomb site. He manages to fight his way into the site, but there is confronted by The Red Skull (Scott Paulin), his Italian counterpart. The two fight, and The Red Skull injects Steve with a drug. When he comes to, he finds himself strapped to the Nazi missile. The Red Skull reveals that the target for the missile is the White House. As the launch commences, Steve grabs The Red Skull by one wrist, forcing him to hack off his own hand. The missile is launched…. In Washington D.C., a young boy, Tommy Kimball (Garette Ratliff), sneaks out of his house one night to photograph the White House. As he watches in astonishment, he sees a missile with a strangely garbed man tied to it heading for the White House. On the missile, Steve struggles desperately, finally managing to throw it off course. It misses its target, eventually flying towards Alaska, where it plunges deep into the snow…. Fifty years later, Tom Kimball (Ronny Cox) is President of United States, The Red Skull, under his original identity of Tadzio de Santis, has become the head of a dangerous international cartel, and a scientific expedition is about to make an amazing discovery in Alaska….

Comments: Even at a conservative estimate, I must have close to a thousand movies sitting around my house waiting to be watched. And yet the other night I sat down and voluntarily watched an Albert Pyun film. I guess anyone that stupid deserves anything they get, which in this case happens to be--- well, an Albert Pyun film. In fairness to the much- (and usually justifiably) maligned Pyun, I would have to say that awful as Captain America is, it clearly wasn’t all his fault. The film’s screenplay is so bad and so stupid, that the best director in the world couldn’t have done anything with it.

The opening scene sets a tone of ridiculousness maintained right to the end credits. After the abduction of child prodigy Tadzio de Santis (accompanied by the gratuitous but PG-rated offscreen massacre of his family), we are shown the first result of Dr Vaselli’s "process": a lab rat that has been enlarged and, seemingly, turned inside out. As the red squirmy creature turns to bear its fangs and snarl at the camera, we see that it bears a remarkable resemblance to the rat/spider/crab monster of The Angry Red Planet (at least, to the one on the poster art, if perhaps not the one in the actual film). When it becomes clear that the Italian child is about to undergo her experimental "process", Dr Vaselli reacts with shock and outrage that is, in a word, ludicrous. I mean, if it isn’t too tactless to ask, what precisely did she think the Nazis were going to do with her "process"? The only thing sillier than this reaction is Dr Vaselli’s escape: breaking from the two guards who grab her, she manages to outrun machine gun fire and jump out the window, after which--- well, the Nazis simply let her go. Why not, after all? What’s she going to do? Defect to the Americans? Give her former masters’ deadliest enemies her secret "process"?

Um – yeah, she is. Seven years later, we see former polio sufferer Steve Rogers bidding his family goodbye after volunteering for a secret government project. Some time is spent on Steve’s farewell to his girlfriend, Bernice, who tearfully promises to wait for him "for ever and ever" (hmm – wonder how that will turn out?). Steve is collected by Dr Vaselli and taken to a secret underground laboratory, where some time later they are joined by good-guy Colonel Louis (Michael Nouri, sporting a ludicrous southern accent) and bad-guy Lieutenant Fleming (a cameoing Bill Mumy). In response to Fleming’s undiplomatic inquiry as to where they found their "guinea pig", Louis proclaims that Steve was the "best damn candidate out of six hundred volunteers" – an announcement that conjures up an irresistible mental picture of the selection process ("Wanted: 600 gimps for unethical scientific experimentation. Please apply c/- Mr P., The White House, Washington…."). Steve then undergoes the "process". Dr Vaselli calls it "an infusion", but it seems to involve as many flashing lights and showers of sparks as the animation of Henry Frankenstein’s Creature (or the creation of "kindly Dr Carruthers’" Devil Bat, for that matter). We see Steve’s muscles grow and strengthen (one of the film’s better effects), and the "process" is pronounced a success. At that moment, a Nazi spy reveals himself and kills Dr Vaselli (wouldn’t doing it before have made more sense?). Steve is wounded, but kills the intruder.

While Steve is recovering from his injuries, Louis receives word that the Nazis have a new guided missile trained on the US of A. Steve drags himself from his hospital bed and allows himself to be turned into "Captain America". As they fly over Germany, Steve now clad in his trademark blue body suit and carrying his indestructible shield (and bemoaning the fact that he hasn’t had more time to practice using it), Steve asks Louis when he will be joined by the "rest of his battalion". Louis must break the news that there never will be any more like Steve; that Dr Vaselli kept no records, and her "process" died with her. The utter unlikelihood of this is allowed to pass without comment. Steve parachutes down outside the Nazi missile base, takes out the entire guard (a mission made easier by the soldiers’ invocation of Jabootu’s Avoid The Limbs Rule rule, wherein they refuse to fire at Steve’s legs, arms or head, or anywhere other than at his shield), and breaks into the base. There is confronted by his evil counterpart, known as "The Red Skull". This evil-doer positively purrs at the arrival of his "American brother". The two fight, with the Red Skull getting the better of things, and peppering the fight with "witty" one-liners in the best evil-doer tradition. Steve is injected with a drug and regains consciousness to find himself strapped to the missile. Hearing with horror that the target is "la casa bianca – how is it in English?" Steve decides to take The Red Skull out with him, seizing him by the wrist. The Red Skull is forced to cut off his own hand (although I would have thought cutting off Steve’s would have made more sense), an act accompanied by a lot of screaming but no actual bloodshed (ah, that PG rating!), and the missile and its passenger are launched. As it approaches its target, Steve bashes its hull until he manages to alter its trajectory, and the White House is saved. The missile overshoots its mark and buries itself in the snows of Alaska. As to why it doesn’t explode, your guess is as good as mine.

Now, up to this point, Captain America has been illogical and hootable, but not actively offensive. From this point onwards, however, it becomes intolerable both as a motion picture, and as an adaptation of a comic book. I was going to use the word "embarrassing" about the second half of the film, but upon reflection I realised that a more accurate term would be embarrassed. In short, the screenplay of Captain America seems to have been written by people unable to cope with the fact that their central characters are a superhero and a supervillain, and who spend the second half of the film deconstructing the very characters they spent the first half creating. Thus, instead of "Captain America", we get "Steve Rogers", wandering around the America of the early nineties in a daze, the butt of increasingly silly fish-out-of-water jokes, with his suit crumpled up in a ball and stuffed in a backpack along with his shield. It is not until the very final section of the film that "Captain America" is permitted to reappear. But this is not the worst of it. If one single aspect of this film illustrates the writers’ complete lack of understanding of their subject matter, it is their mishandling of their supervillain. For The Red Skull is not even permitted to be The Red Skull. During the time that Captain America is buried in the Alaskan ice, the writers have their villain undergo "reconstructive surgery", from which he emerges looking like--- well, Really Bad Acne Man.

Oddly enough, at the very same time as they try to turn their characters into people who could exist in "the real world", the writers are equally busy changing "the real world" into something that could only exist in a comic book (or a bad film). The link between the film’s two almost unrelated halves is a young boy who witnessed the near-destruction of the White House while out one night doing his best Jefferson Smith impersonation. We follow young Tom Kimball through high school, his service in Vietnam, his time in the Peace Corp, his election to Congress, and finally his assumption of the Presidency. It is here that the film’s attempt to have it both ways begins to be apparent. Call me a cynic, but somehow I doubt that a candidate standing on a platform of "everyone in a job that damages the environment in any way will have to go and do something else" would ever be elected, any time, anywhere – not even by "the narrowest margin in history". But in this alternative reality, such is the case. Yes, folks, Captain America is a Shove The Message Down Their Throats film, in the proud tradition of Prophecy and On Deadly Ground. Not surprisingly, President Kimball has Enemies. One of them is close at hand, in the person of the now General Fleming (in one of the film’s odder twists, it turns out that Bill Mumy grew up to be Darren McGavin). Fleming is conspiring with the inevitable Evil Big Business Guys, who are led by – surprise! – the erstwhile Red Skull, now living under his original name of Tadzio de Santis. Just so we get that, despite the "reconstructive surgery", he’s still Really Evil, the screenplay has him casually reveal that he was personally responsible for the assassinations of both Kennedys and Martin Luther King. (The more I think about this particular subplot, the more dubious it gets. I’m sure they only meant to make their bad guy as evil as possible, but the wish-fulfillment subtext seems to be that a furriner was really behind those home-grown American tragedies.) However, despite urging from Fleming, de Santis says he’s not going to assassinate Tom Kimball, his past experience having taught him that all that achieves is the creation of a martyr to the cause. Instead, he’s going to kidnap Kimball and implant a control device in his brain, so he’ll do what they want. So much for "the real world".

While these nefarious plans are being laid, we switch to the really stupid part of the film; stupid enough to make what proceeds it look like high art. In 1993, a scientific expedition discovers Captain America frozen in the Alaskan ice. In a scene that rips off The Thing (From Another World) so badly it makes me want to punch someone, the scientists stand around gazing at the mysterious figure encased in ice until, suddenly, it bursts free and escapes. Why Our Hero didn’t break free from the ice any time in the past fifty years if he was capable of doing so is never revealed, nor is the missile he was attached to anywhere in evidence. Before Cap vanishes, one of the scientists takes a photo of him. When this picture is published, it has two immediate repercussions. De Santis, deciding that Cap is a danger, sends his equally evil daughter, Valentina, to seek and destroy. Meanwhile, in Washington, President Kimball instantly recognises the star of his childhood adventure, and sends his lifelong best friend, crusading journalist Sam Kolawetz, to find Cap. Our Hero, not realising how much time has passed, has decided to walk to Washington. Yup. From Alaska. When we rejoin him, we find he’s made it into Northern Canada. Now, apparently Northern Canada is a much smaller place than I’d previously supposed; that, or it only has one road. Because as Cap wanders down a lonely stretch of asphalt, Sam in his VW and Valentina in her helicopter converge upon him simultaneously! Yup. Just like that. The Baddies jump out of their helicopters and chase Cap through the trees on motor bikes. Fortunately, Sam’s VW arrives just then, Cap jumps in, and since Valentina, like all Baddies, can’t shoot straight when she’s firing at The Hero, Cap and Sam escape without too much trouble. Sam tries to convince Cap that it’s 1993, but Cap becomes deeply suspicious when (and this is probably the only intentionally humorous moment in the entire film) he realises that not only is Sam driving a German car, but his tape recorder is Made In Japan. Deciding that Sam is a German spy, Cap fakes illness, forcing Sam to stop the car and let him out. When Sam walks over to see if he’s okay, Cap sprints to the car and drives off, leaving Sam stranded. (Presumably, he walks back to Washington.) Cap is so proud of this manoeuvre he does it again later in the film. So much for our "superhero".

Cap – or rather, "Steve Rogers" – makes it to California and goes looking for his old girlfriend, Bernie. And that’s what he finds: his "old" girlfriend, Bernie (played by Kim Gillingham in a grey wig). This part of the film is not only dumb, it is really creepy, and it defies all known laws of nature. A tearful Bernie explains to Steve that she "waited until she was thirty-eight", but that she really wanted children, and so married someone else. Well, we’ve seen her kid (also Kim Gillingham), who looks all of twenty, while Bernie’s husband looks about fifty. And this is supposed to be "fifty years later"!? Bernie’s husband, I must say, is probably the film’s most intriguing character. He looks on, seemingly unperturbed, as his presumably seventy-something wife passionately embraces the twenty-something stranger that shows up on their doorstep, then politely stays in the lounge-room while all the explanations are going on in the kitchen. "My husband’s a good man," Bernie tells Steve solemnly, as they always do (translation: I didn’t care a toss for him, but his sperm count was adequate). Anyway, these reminiscences are cut short when Sam Kolawetz and the Bad Guys arrive at Bernie’s house, naturally enough simultaneously. Much gunfire later, Bernie and Sam are both dead, and Bernie’s husband is in the hospital. While Steve and Sharon, Bernie’s daughter, keep vigil, the news comes over the TV that President Kimball has been kidnapped from his hotel room in Rome, where he was supposed to be overseeing the introduction of international legislation to outlaw Doing Bad Stuff. Or something. Steve realises that Sam had been telling the truth, and he and Sharon go looking for Dr Vaselli’s diary.

Now, wait just a minute. Dr Vaselli’s diary!!?? So, she didn’t keep proper scientific notes, but she kept a record of her activities in a diary!!?? Oyyyy….. Anyway, Steve and Sharon make it to the old secret underground laboratory (and yes, it’s still there – abandoned, but still there). The Bad Guys show up and there’s some shooting and fighting, but The Good Guys escape with the diary, which reveals that The Red Skull originally came from an Italian town called Portovenere. And so Steve and Sharon go to Italy. Yup. Just like that. No papers, no passports, no visas. They just go. So much for "the real world".

Meanwhile, Tom Kimball is being prepared to receive the control device. Fortunately for humanity, he must first be made "receptive" by drugs. This will take "twenty-four hours". Kimball makes a lot of defiant speeches, as you do, and finally de Santis reveals that his ultimate ambition is to become President of the United States himself, and intends using Kimball to that end. Now, even I know that you have to be born in America to become President, but apparently the screenwriters didn’t. Or maybe they figured that a President powerful enough to outlaw Doing Bad Stuff wouldn’t have any trouble getting his own way about that, too. So instead of having Kimball point out that what de Santis is planning is impossible, they have him react with shock and horror. He’s then hauled back to his prison cell to let the drugs take effect.

Steve and Sharon track down de Santis’s old home, and the current occupants conveniently produce a tape recording of the night the boy was abducted. You see, the child prodigy was playing the piano when the Nazis broke in, and…. Oh, never mind. Anyway, The Bad Guys have also managed to transport themselves instantaneously to Italy, and the next section of the film is passed with a lot of tedious chasing and shooting and running around (it is during this that Steve’s pulls his crafty "car-jacking" stunt again). Sharon gets grabbed by The Bad Guys, Steve tracks her to the Fortress Lorenzo, which is de Santis’s headquarters, and hallelujah! puts on his suit. That’s right: with twelve minutes to go in a ninety-seven minute film called Captain America, we finally get "Captain America". Inside the fortress, Kimball has managed to break out of his jail cell by weakening the lock with some kind of chemical he’s swiped. Finally cornered on the roof, when he finds that de Santis’s plans cannot proceed without him, he jumps off. His heroism meets its reward when it turns out that Cap is on the way up as Kimball is on the way down. Cap grabs him by one wrist (an action that would have ripped both men’s arms out of their sockets, but never mind) and they climb in through a convenient window. During the ensuing fight, Kimball and Cap succeed in wiping out all of de Santis’s men. Cornered, de Santis tries blasting Cap with his automatic weaponry, but as he will not fire anywhere but at Cap’s shield (the legs, you moron!), this gambit fails. His plans thwarted, de Santis announces his intention of detonating an atomic bomb that will destroy all of Southern Europe. Cap tries to stop him by hurling his shield at him – but he misses. (This is probably meant to build dramatic tension, but I found it a bit embarrassing.) With de Santis about to push The Button, Cap goes for the tape recorder, playing aloud his adversary’s childhood trauma. This makes de Santis pause just long enough for Cap to have another go with his shield, and this time he hits the target, sending de Santis plunging off a cliff. Valentina tries to avenge her father, but on its way back, the shield--- well, it does something to her that the PG-rating means we can’t see. Too late as usual, some UN troops arrive. Kimball stands face to face with his childhood hero, Cap and Sharon embrace, and the credits roll over the classic comic book image of Captain America – which, given everything that’s gone before, is truly the final insult.