Captain America (1990):
out of ****
Viewed in its un-cut version, Albert Pyun's 1990 Captain America emerges as an inexplicably brilliant blend of b-grade nonsense and Greek tragedy. Much maligned for twenty years since it's filming, I'm prepared to admit that this new cut will do absolutely nothing to convince anyone who hated the original version of its merit; that said, I'm one of a handful of viewers who was initially actually charmed by its low budget schlock, and watching this cut today, I found myself both amused by that fun-spirited badness and, at the same time, surprisingly moved by its new scenes, which seek to convey the sadness of a misplaced American dream. This is certainly no version of Captain America that anyone could have expected or asked for—it's far too brooding and melancholy—but perhaps since my idea of a great Cap film was so utterly fulfilled by the 2011 version, I was able to approach Pyun's new cut stripped of expectations.
I think that the best way to empty your own expectations is to realize that this film is a product of a time when Hollywood still wasn't sure what approach to take the superhero genre. Superman and Batman were both box-office smashes before Captain America was greenlit, but the former had fallen victim to lousy sequels and the latter was too self-contained and bizarre to create a successful model for potential movie franchises. The investors of Captain America must have felt the same way, because they infamously pulled funding on this film while it was literally in the middle of shooting; Pyun and company were forced to do the best they could with literally no money in the bank, and the released film was cobbled together by the producers from an finished product. Fortunately, enough of the script was shot to tell a clear narrative when slapped together (well: clear enough, save plot holes you drive a tank through), but several sequences from original work-print that Pyun had constructed were omitted—critical scenes which add thematic depth and recast the film not as a mindless action adventure but rather as a lamentation between two central characters who are never quite able to live up to the expectations their nations have placed on them.
With interest in Captain America surging with the release of the 2011 version, Pyun felt compelled to release that work-print as his director's cut and tour the country with it. So when watching this picture, do not be surprised or disappointed when you realize that a work-print is exactly what it is: This copy clearly hasn't aged well with its frequent grain and tear, and some of the editing is weak—particularly flashback sequences which insert whole scenes that we've already viewed as placeholders for an editor who never got a change to use his knife. We forgive these technical faults, because even with them glaringly present, we are able to see Pyun's layered and often outrageous vision emerge.
It is therefore necessary to view this Captain America as an experiment in storytelling, as a standalone attempt to translate one of Marvel's staples into a post-modern age without any franchise in mind and with very little budget with which to work. It's impossible to know if the film succeeds in fulfilling any of the intentions that Pyun and writer Stephen Tolkin set out to accomplish, but even as it often plays like two polar-opposite premises stepping furiously on each others' toes, it remains a fascinating and always entertaining benchmark in superhero cinema before anyone was sure that there was a future in such an enterprise.
The film opens with a sequence of startling violence that seemed out of place and downright mean-spirited in the otherwise fluffy original, but it works better in this gloomier cut: In pre-war Italy, a young Italian boy holding a concerto for his family has his house stormed by Italian infantry and savagely watches the murder of everyone he loves before being whisked away to a secret lab. He has been chosen by Mussolini for his “superior intelligence,” and he is promptly given a secret serum that grants him the skills of a world-class athlete. There are, unfortunately, some physical side-effects. That this young boy will grow up to be the Red Skull (played as an adult by Scott Paulin) shouldn't be a surprise if you're paying attention, but it must be said that the film devotes more time making the Red Skull a sympathetic antihero than the comic books ever did; by the time the supervillain, in modern day, laments to Captain America, “We are both tragedies, and now I send our tortured souls to rest!”, we know he's telling the truth as best as he understands it.
The United States, of course, has their own version of the formula, which they administer years later to a 4-F recruit named Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger), who is flown wide-eyed to enemy territory and hastily parachuted to a secret site where the fully grown and utterly brainwashed Red Skull is waiting with an immanent (and ludicrous) plan to destroy America. Cap gets one mediocre fight in before he is defeated and strapped to a bomb aimed for the White House, which he is able to steer off course and re-route to Alaska, where he plunges into ice and is frozen for decades. All this happens before the twenty-minute mark, and one of the chief criticisms of this film is that Cap spends hardly any time in the comic book's most important location for his character, which is the front lines of World War II. The rest of this picture concerns itself primarily with Cap waking up in modern day and his attempts to stop the Red Skull, who is now a criminal kingpin, from having his brain transplanted into the new American president's head.
But watching the new cut, we get a clearer sense of Pyun and Tolkin's agenda: to explore both America's failure to effectively train Captain America for battle, which leads to his own torment for letting his country down, and the tragedy that informs the Red Skull's heinous motivations. As in the original cut, Cap finds out that the Red Skull now leads a crime syndicate responsible for the deaths of JFK, RFK, Martin Luther King, and others; in that version, Cap seems brooding about this knowledge but is more or less unaffected, choosing to devote his time to rekindling his relationship with his now ancient girlfriend (Kim Gillingham, who also plays her daughter in modern day) until the Red Skull's henchmen literally come knocking at his door. The new version restores scenes that allow Cap to contemplate the ramifications of his failure—he might have been “chosen” as an symbol for America, but while he was sleeping in ice, the true American heroes were assassinated by the man he failed to kill in the first place.
Consider the powerful new scene in which Cap goes to a V.A. Hospital to visit his old general (Michael Nouri, whose character was otherwise just a pointless cameo in the original cut). The general is now senile, but he manages to ramble bitterly, in a rare moment of clarity, about how wars have changed into a business and that all the true heroes are dead. This soliloquy is clearly screenwriter Tolkin preaching to the audience, but it is a good sermon that raises the thematic stakes and forces Cap to come face-to-face with his own shortcomings. The scene also puts what are considered the film's narrative failings into context: Cap's rushed mission, his failure in his brief World War II battle, and his decided lack of heroism in the present day are not bad storytelling, but deliberate attempts to scrutinize America's contemporary war games. If Captain America is indeed a “living symbol of what this country stands for,” as this tired old general states, then Tolkin and Pyun certainly have their own ideas about what America now represents.
Additionally, while in the shorter version, the Red Skull's impulse to eliminate Captain America in modern day seems inexplicable, the overall tone of this new cut provides motivation: His desire to see Cap dead is fueled not by the requirements of b-movie villainy, but because Cap represents the last living testament of his previous, tortured life as a tool for Mussolini. He's stalking past demons, just as Cap targets the Red Skull again to silence the ghosts of the real patriots that haunt him. In the final confrontation, Captain America dons his costume for the last time basically in an act of desperation, and the Red Skull addresses him not as an arch-villain, but as a fellow war vet fully aware that they are both overcoming their PTSD by playing out their old roles.
As Captain America, especially in this new cut that fleshes out his character, Matt Salinger brings a sincerity and a “gee whizz” charm that reminded me of a young Christopher Reeve as Superman, if Reeve had played the part as a depressed Orpheus. He gets his own monologue about “missing out on all the wars” that is as devastating as any battle-weary speech I've ever heard. Scott Paulin hams it up effectively as the Red Skull, acting like the cheesy villain that he is required to be, but he informs his exaggerated evil with haunted eyes that reveal deep wounds. Familiar character actors like Ronny Cox, Darren McGavin, Ned Beatty, Galliano Pahor, and Melinda Dillon fulfill the requirements of their roles and not much more; they correctly recognize that the film's success or failure, which hinges on these two critical roles, has little to do with their input beyond standard professionalism. Still, Cox gets one memorable scene as the United States president in which he makes a critical decision about his involvement with the Red Skull's brain transplant. If the film has any clear-cut American hero, it's easier to make a case for him than Cap—which is the movie's point, I suspect.
So far I've been describing the ways the new scenes enhance the picture. But here's when Captain America gets quite tricky: These scenes, as powerful as they are, come sandwiched between the same b-grade action and dumb storyline that have always betrayed the film's savaged production values. Sequences that were ridiculous in the 1990 cut are just as silly in this cut: Cap bursting from the ice on his own, an absurd conspiracy plot surrounding the brain transplant of an American president, Cap's obviously rubber ears (glued to the costume because holes for Salinger's real ears caused painful chaffing), and the Red Skull's bored henchmen who look like they belong on the cover of Vogue are just a few examples. Don't get me wrong: These elements are as charming as they ever were in their grade-z corniness, but then come these humorless additions that demand to be taken seriously. Viewed in a final cut, the contrast is nearly irreconcilable—it's as if Pyun shot the more philosophical scenes before the money ran out, and once realizing he now had a limited canvas and little time, he decided to shoot a low-budget action picture instead. Certainly the action is directed with a workman-like finesse—particularly the quickly-edited final fight, which foretells the rapidly-cut Bourne pictures—but they clearly represent a different movie altogether than the one he started out to make.
But I also cannot deny that when viewed as a single piece, this patchwork Captain America becomes an utterly compelling observation of men tortured by the unfortunate circumstances that have turned them into under-written action-movie characters. I wonder: Can you get away with b-level clichés if you devote time to pointing out how clichéd they actually are, in order to prove a larger thematic point? Is this what the filmmakers intended? And is this utterly depressing tone the correct one for a movie about Captain America, one of the least-tortured characters in the comics? Could they have replaced Cap and the Red Skull, who are really their Marvel counterparts in-name-only, with other characters and told the same story?
I don't have the answers to any of these questions, because I can only discuss the film as it is. What I know for certain is that this particular cut engaged me utterly—its qualities as a “bad movie” are a guilty pleasure, and its important questions about the nature of heroism and blind national pride are well-presented. I suppose that the picture's genre-splicing has placed it on the same plain of unclassifiable oddballs like Bubba Ho-Tep and the first Highlander, which are elevated by their outrageous knack for being all over the place; what's more fascinating here in that it's impossible to tell if this Captain America has done any of this blending on purpose.
Here's what I'm ultimately left to conclude: Compared to Joe Johnston's Captain America: The First Avenger, this version presents as a compellingly bleak interpretation of the American dream. Our patriotism is rewarded in the new film with an exciting account of a great hero. On the other hand, Pyun's adaptation, in its gloomy contemplation of failed heroism and traumatized evil, leaves us drained. I'm also prepared to conclude that this feeling of sadness is exactly what Pyun and Tolkin intended. What I'm not prepared to conclude, considering the emotions and complex questions that the new scenes stirred in me and the way that they added context to the otherwise harmless first cut, is that any of this is a bad thing. As it stands, Albert Pyun's new version of Captain America is an invaluable document of an early attempt to both cater to comic book silliness and take the genre seriously, before anyone was exactly sure how to do either. If the new Captain America is the pinnacle of such a combination, Pyun's skillfully represents a work-in-progress.
Matt Salinger: Captain America
Scott Paulin: The Red Skull
Kim Gillingham: Bernie/Sharon
Ronny Cox: President Kimball
Michael Nouri: Colonel Lewis
Darren McGavin:General Fleming
Carla Cassola: Dr. Vaselli
Galliano Pahor: Benito Mussolini
Melinda Dillon: Mrs. Rogers
Colombia/TriStar presents a 21st Century Film Corporation release. Directed by Albert Pyun. Written by Stephen Tolkin and Lawrence Block. Based on the characters created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, for Marvel Comics. Rated PG-13 for comic book violence, a few intense deaths and some language. Running time: 114 minutes. Original year of release: 1990. United States theatrical release date of director's cut: July 2, 2011.