DVD Review: Captain America
by Darren Goodhart
Published: September 14, 2011
Way back in the day, Cannon Films had the rights to make a film adaptation of Marvel's Captain America. As the story goes, those rights were about to expire and so Cannon approached director Albert Pyun to take a look at the script and see if he could do something with it. Pyun gave producer Menahem Golan a proposal and got the film going pretty quickly. During the course of filming, rumor has it that the budget was slashed and so Pyun wasn't able to do everything with the film that he wanted to do. But Pyun, being known as a director who could work wonders with a meager budget, pressed on and completed his film, which was originally set for a 1990 release. Well, the film sat on the shelf for quite awhile (though I do remember seeing a teaser trailer for it when Tim Burton's first "Batman" movie came out) until finally being released direct to video in 1992 to less than stellar reaction.
MGM has recently released the 1992 version of "Captain America" as part of the MGM Limited Edition Collection, a DVD-burn-on-demand service much like what Warner Brothers has with the Warner Archives. Now interestingly enough, director Albert Pyun announced his own director's cut release with approximately 30 minutes of new footage, as well as some other extras. Unfortunately, I don't have that version in front of me, but I do have MGM's. For the most part, MGM has done a pretty decent job with this disk, though there isn't that much to offer.
Starting in 1936, our story originally starts with a young boy being abducted from his family in Italy. The boy is chosen by the Italians to be the first to receive treatment that will make him twice as strong and smart as any normal human, and will be known as The Red Skull. The experiment succeeds, but the scientist responsible (Dr. Vaselli) is horrified by the results and runs from the Italians. We flash forward to 1943, and now Vaselli has made her way to the United States and has perfected her process. The first person chosen to take part in her experiment is a young polio-stricken Californian named Steve Rogers and again, her experiment is a success. But right as the experiment has finished, Vaselli is shot down by a Nazi agent. Steve is given the code name of Captain America and a specially treated uniform and shield with his first order of business to be sent to Italy to take out the Red Skull. Captain America manages to thwart the Red Skull's master plan, but in the process has now found himself frozen in Alaska. We then move to the present day, where Captain America has been discovered with further hijinks being set to ensue.
That's the premise to this film and to say it takes liberties with the traditional origins of the comic character is on the kind side. This version of the film takes some pretty big leaps in logic that didn't go over well with its audience in the day and I doubt if time will be that kind to it now. Now, I suppose that it could be argued that comparatively speaking, its story might be more attuned to the simpler nature of Captain America's Golden Age comic book stories, and I'm certainly willing to give it that, but does it make for something that audiences will enjoy now? My gut tells me "no," but I also tend to think that others out there will still find it worthwhile, but more as curiosity piece more than anything else.
Now, it's not all bad, though -- there are some real pluses here. Matt Salinger (the son of author J.D. Salinger) was chosen to play the part of Steve Rogers/Captain America and he has a real earnestness that comes through the part (though he does have a couple of "ploys" that he uses that's kind of uncharacteristic for the character, but I'll blame that on the director and not on Salinger). Cap's costume is pretty darn close to perfect and depending on how scenes are lit, Salinger looks quite impressive in the suit, at some points almost putting me in the mind of a John Buscema-drawn version of the character.
I know some are critical of Pyun's action scenes and their hyper-edits, but I thought they worked pretty nicely here myself and only show you enough of Cap to not really see the seams. While those scenes are good, they're not quite enough to save this movie as it's burdened with a pretty tired second act and a Red Skull (played by Scott Paulin) that's not quite as fearsome as he should be. And again, that's not even beginning to mention some of the lapses in logic in how we get from one scene to another or how some characters act (in particular the president of the United States played by Ronny Cox).
Now, on to what MGM has done with the DVD. Well, before the movie gets started, we get a card that tells us that this movie has been assembled from the best available sources, so that should tell you a little something right there. The presentation is in full frame 4:3 format and it looks like it's been assembled from some sort of video tape masters. For the most part, it looks OK, but suffers dramatically with some of the darker scenes. The sound is basic 2.0 Dolby Digital and doesn't really distinguish itself that well. It's serviceable, but it won't stand out. Also included on the disk is the original trailer, also presented in full frame.
I think it's terrific that MGM has released this for those that will really want it. Even though it's not a great movie, there's still some good aspects to it. The thing is, I think this version of the film is only going to be something for hardcore fan/completists out there, especially considering that Albert Pyun's director's cut is also now (supposedly) available. Those folks will also no doubt be looking forward to Shout! Factory's upcoming release of Universal's two Captain America TV movies starring Reb Brown as well, and compared to those, this version of "Captain America" is almost high art (though truth be told, I'm certainly looking forward to seeing those TV movies again when I get the chance). My grade reflects on the film itself, though I do have to commend MGM on getting this out there.