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Captain America (1990) DVD Review (MGM Limited Edition Collection)

Captain America (1990) movie poster Captain America

UK Theatrical Release: December 14, 1990 / US Video Premiere: July 22, 1992 / Running Time: 97 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Albert Pyun / Writers: Stephen Tolkin (story & screenplay); Lawrence J. Block (story); Joe Simon, Jack Kirby (characters)

Cast: Matt Salinger (Steve Rogers/Captain America), Ronny Cox (President Tom Kimball), Ned Beatty (Sam Kolawetz), Darren McGavin (General Fleming), Michael Nouri (Lt. Colonel Louis), Scott Paulin (The Red Skull, Army Doctor), Kim Gillingham (Bernice Stewart, Sharon), Melinda Dillon (Mrs. Rogers), Bill Mumy (Young General Fleming), Francesca Neri (Valentina de Santis), Carla Cassola (Dr. Maria Vaselli), Massimilio Massimi (Tadzio de Santis), Wayde Preston (Jack), Norbert Weisser (Alaskan Surveyor), Garette Ratliff (Young Tom Kimball)

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Superhero movies are now a staple in Hollywood and many of them find that rare, meaningful blend of pleasing audiences and critics alike. Three movies adapted from the pages of Marvel Comics (Thor, X-Men: First Class, and Captain America: The First Avenger) ranked among this summer's highest grossing and most highly regarded releases. But comic book heroes were not always ripe for feature film treatment.
In between the serials of the 1940s and the present-day boom, the genre largely went untapped. Sure the adventures of Superman and Batman were some of the biggest draws of the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. But few superheroes outside of those two series graced the silver screen. It's no secret why: those that did -- Condorman, Darkman, The Meteor Man, etc. -- typically flopped financially and creatively.

Marvel is one of the biggest and most reliable film empires around today, so it's shocking to see just how dismal their first decade of adaptations turned out. It started with the George Lucas-produced laughingstock Howard the Duck (1986) and concluded with the legendarily bad and unintended for humans Roger Corman-produced The Fantastic Four (1994). In between those came The Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren and the subject of this DVD review, Captain America. It's tough to even attach years to these two, as both were intended for theatrical release and received it in assorted overseas markets but went on to have their U.S. premieres two years later as direct-to-video features.

Like Corman's Fantastic Four, this Captain America will forever live in the shadow of a much more polished, pricey, and prominent Chris Evans film. Unlike Corman's Four, Captain has not been relegated to convention bootlegs and file sharing. It debuted on VHS in July of 1992, nineteen months after beginning its theatrical rollout in the UK. You'd think the comic book movie era spearheaded by X-Men and Spider-Man and reinforced by the likes of Iron Man and Christopher Nolan's Batman would have prompted MGM and partner 20th Century Fox to put Captain America out on DVD at some point, even as something of a disreputable curiosity. Instead, the studios allowed it to languish, until shrewdly scheduling a release alongside the theatrical debut of the hero's new film.

Dr. Vaselli (Carla Cassola) prepares a not so weak Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger) for his transformation. Captain America (Matt Salinger) does not glow, it only looks that way when Nazi light catches him at just the right angle.

Not surprisingly for an entry in MGM's Limited Edition Collection or any made-to-order DVD-R program for that matter, the 1990s Captain missed its opportune late-July release date and settled instead for this last full week of August, with Paramount's movie out of the top ten and Conan O'Brien's long-running Entertainment Tonight gag retired. Not that such things are very important for such a release, which you'd have to be a big, electronically versed fan of DVDs to even know about by now.

Captain America opens in 1936 Italy, where a young piano prodigy is kidnapped by Nazi scientists to be the subject of an experiment. At this point, you might wonder if you've accidentally gotten a copy of Captain Italy. But that Italian boy is not transformed into our hero; he is instead destined to become The Red Skull (red like a Communist!).

The protagonist's story begins in 1943, when Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger, son of famously reclusive The Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger), a polio-stricken Redondo Beach man in his early twenties, is picked out of 600 volunteers to receive America's version of the Red Skull's procedure. Supervised by a conscientious Italian objector to Nazi techniques (Carla Cassola), Rogers' makeover should transform him into a soldier of super strength. And it does, but before the patriot can single-handedly win World War II for us, he is rocketed off, not to be seen again for nearly fifty years. It is the present day when Captain America is found in Alaskan ice, thawed out, and resumes living at the same age he was, disbelieving half a century has passed (an idea conveyed in an unintentionally hilarious montage).

The Red Skull (Scott Paulin) is happy to see you at his reddest. Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger) accepts an opportune ride to safety from Washington journalist Sam Kolawetz, but he can only take so much Ned Beatty.

Upon being discovered, Captain America finds himself pursued by two parties. One is a veteran journalist (Ned Beatty) hungry to get his story. The other is a team of trigger-happy agents who want the Captain dead. They are dispatched from Italy, where the Red Skull is still alive and still wielding power and hostility. Steve eludes them all and, eager to reunite with his sweetheart Bernie (Kim Gillingham), returns to his California hometown. There, he finds Bernie is an old lady (Gillingham in aging make-up).
As luck would have it, though, good ol' Bernie waited a while for her Steve, which makes her daughter Sharon (also Gillingham, but blonde) an appropriate age for leading lady and love interest status.

Sharon accompanies Captain America to Rome, where the Red Skull (Scott Paulin) is believed to be holding kidnapped US President Tom Kimball (Ronny Cox). The Skull's forces are supposedly responsible for the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Kennedy brothers, so Kimball would appear to be in great peril. But the Skull has grown weary of assassinations and has generously given President Kimball 24 hours until meeting his fate. Is that enough time for Captain America and Sharon to rescue him and score a win for democracy? Who can say without spoiling this film's not even slightly unexpected ending?

Directed by Albert Pyun on the heels of his best-known work (the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie Cyborg) and chiefly written as the first feature film credit of future "Summerland" creator and "Legend of the Seeker" developer Stephen Tolkin, this Captain America is unquestionably cheesy. It's also amateurish, hindered by clunky fights, subpar special effects, and some brief but pronounced moments of weak or over-the-top acting. One wonders if the filmmakers had a specific audience in mind for this that would be able to overlook the hokiness. You might suspect the young were targeted, but while unobjectionable, this PG-13 production seems less oriented to them than most of today's far-reaching superhero movies. I don't believe that any camp value was intended, because the ample opportunity for such an element is ignored and the movie lacks any self-awareness.

Most of the second half of the movie follows Steve (Matt Salinger) and Sharon (Kim Gillingham) on their adventures around Italy. President Kimball (Ronny Cox) and Captain America (Matt Salinger) stand up to villainy.

Captain America often looks fifteen to twenty years older than it actually is, perhaps partly because of this underwhelming DVD presentation (more on that later). At other times, it has a distinctly turn-of-the-'90s flavor, not in any trend-setting way, but in that you'd get a similar feel from various forgotten action B-movies of the time. It doesn't look like anyone here believed they were making anything but an action B-movie. Tim Burton's Batman opened two weeks into Captain America's filming and by the time this wrapped, it was the top-grossing film of 1989 and well on its way to becoming the third biggest earner of the entire decade. That performance doesn't at all seem to have inspired this one to achieve big things. The small producer and would-be distributor 21st Century Film Corporation lacked confidence. The rights to the other Marvel Comics franchise they acquired, a little-known character called Spider-Man, would go unrealized, and both 21st Century and Marvel would file for bankruptcy in 1996. Though Marvel bounced back, 21st never did and despite a handful of somewhat notable releases (like 1989's The Phantom of the Opera and 1990's Night of the Living Dead), their legacy is non-existent today.

Captain America sat around getting tested and reworked so long that by the time it was made available to the American public, its unusual filming location, Yugoslavia, had been disintegrated into six republics.

This long-awaited (?) DVD is branded a Re-Released 1992 Edition, which doesn't make much sense, but I guess indicates that this is the cut released in America and not a bootlegged earlier one reported to have three scenes ultimately cut. Meanwhile, director Albert Pyun did some touring of the nation this summer with a 124-minute director's cut and is now making the same edit available on Blu-ray with an audio commentary. Sketchily, though, you've got to e-mail his company for details.

Captain America: Re-Released 1992 Edition MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.33:1 Fullscreen
Dolby Surround 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: None; Not Closed Captioned
Release Date: August 23, 2011
Single-sided, single-layered DVD-R (DVD-5)
List Price: $19.95
Black Keepcase

VIDEO and AUDIO

Oddly, Captain America appears in 1.33:1 "full frame", which matches its 1992 VHS debut, but not the aspect ratio used on films for more than thirty years before cameras started rolling here. A boom mic is visible at the top of the frame on a presidential TV address, but otherwise there is not much room to matte this. A cropping seems more likely and more objectionable. IMDb lists 1.85:1 as the intended ratio and I imagine that is how it was exhibited in its foreign theatrical engagements.

Not surprisingly, given the nature of DVD-R programs and a pre-movie disclaimer, this looks like an old VHS master. The quality seems comparable to a videocassette that has not previously been played. There are lots of tiny scratches and blemishes on the print. A couple of brief optical effects shots are littered with debris.
Captain America Ad
One dark fight scene is grainy and full of speckles. Aliasing is pretty common. In general, the picture is less colorful and more blurry than you expect of DVD. It is, however, clear enough to notice that the filmmakers didn't even bother to come up with anything relevant for the few visible lines of prominently featured newspaper stories. That is indicative of the production's sloppiness, as are static images used on certain establishing shots.

The 2.0 soundtrack, which sounded like proper Dolby Surround, fares only slightly better. Volume levels run a wide range, wider than desirable. Issues dating back to the editing suite include some unsynchronized audio, much of which seems to have been poorly looped. More of the dialogue is in Italian than you'd suspect. Perplexingly, much of it is not subtitled. Some of it is, with small, burned-in subtitles (curiously placed within quotes). These, of course, are the only subtitles you'll see here. The movie's English dialogue is not transcribed by stream or closed caption. At least the song by Ivan Neville (son of Aaron) and the two by Southside Johnny are adequately presented.

The trailer to the 1990 "Captain America" concludes with this empowering title logo. This rudimentary lone DVD menu is the only 16:9 item on the disc.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Par for the MGM Limited Edition Collection, Captain America is joined by just one basic, unadvertised bonus feature: its original trailer (1:49), which is bound to make you say "Oh, it looks good!"

Everything else is as no-frills as possible here, the one menu a black screen with the cover art and chapter stops haphazardly placed every ten minutes. Naturally, there is no insert within the uncut Eco-Box keepcase, whose front cover at least looks pretty professional (although its title isn't the most legible). The spine and back look like what those who aren't in graphic design might create for a familial Christmas gift DVD-R.

This young 1940s boy (Garette Ratliff) is delighted to catch a glimpse of Captain America. He'll grow up to be president one day! Captain America (Matt Salinger) shoots us a hero's glare in the film's frozen closing shot. (The ears are rubber.)

CLOSING THOUGHTS

This low-budget 1990s Captain America should never be mistaken for the new Chris Evans movie, nor should it be lumped together with the mostly respected more than two dozen post-bankruptcy Marvel superhero films.
This is a much lesser effort that never could have dreamed of attracting the crowds and passion that today's comic book movies inspire. No one exposed to them can in good faith call this predecessor a great or even a good movie. Still, it's also not as bad as the lowly 2.9 IMDb rating suggests. Intended or not, it is kind of a hoot. Maybe you're not supposed to laugh at the shield-flinging action and the president who conducts business in jeans and sneakers, but at least it's consistently entertaining and not always for the wrong reasons; some of the bright ideas of the enduring, original comics manage to make some impact here.

This underwhelming DVD will have to do for Marvel completists and fans of this early attempt to tell Captain America's story. The official release pales in comparison to most discs put out in general retail, but, flawed though it may be, the feature presentation no doubt exceeds the bootlegs you'd otherwise have to settle for.

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Related Reviews:
Marvel Comics Movies: Iron Man Ghost Rider Fantastic Four Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Superheroes: Hellboy II: The Golden Army The Incredibles The Green Hornet Hancock The Tick vs. Season 1 Kick-Ass
Scott Paulin: Teen Wolf | Darren McGavin: Perfect Harmony | Michael Nouri: Flashdance | Stephen Tolkin: Legend of the Seeker
MGM Limited Edition Collection: The Murder of Mary Phagan A Thousand Clowns Billy Two Hats

Marvel Animated TV Series:
The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes! Volume 1 The Spectacular Spider-Man: The Complete First Season
Fantastic Four: The Complete 1994-95 Animated Television Series Spider-Man: The Venom Saga

Songs in Captain America: Ivan Neville - "Home of the Brave", Southside Johnny - "Memories of You", Southside Johnny - "Written in the Wind"

Official Shop of Marvel!

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Reviewed August 26, 2011.



Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1990 21st Century Film Corporation, Marvel Entertainment Group, and 2011 MGM and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
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