Nether Regions: 07.12.11: Captain America - The 1979 TV Movies
Posted by Chad Webb on 07.12.2011
My string of Captain America columns, in preparation for the new film, begins with two movies that were attempts to sprout a television series. Are they better left forgotten? That’s obvious, but click anyway…
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
CAPTAIN AMERICA (TV-1979)
Starring: Reb Brown, Len Birman, and Heather Menzies-Urich Directed By: Rod Holcomb Written By: Don Ingalls and Chester Krumholtz Running Time: 97 minutes Original Air Date: January 19, 1979 Missing Since: 1998 Existing Formats:VHS Netflix Status: Not Available Availability:Extremely Rare
In 1979, CBS aired two made-for-TV movies that featured Captain America. Before that, the character had only appeared in a serial from 1944 and then in animated form, with the 1966 series The Marvel Super Heroes. Most people will be familiar with the second wave of Marvel comic adaptation that began around the year 2000 onward, but back in the late 70's several Marvel properties hit the small screen, mostly because of the success of the Superman film starring Christopher Reeve and shows like The Six Million Dollar Man.
Captain America: Sexy is my middle name.
Marvel fans were tortured with such jewels as The Amazing Spider-Man television series and the three movies that were comprised of joined episodes, the failed Dr. Strange pilot, and of course The Incredible Hulk series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. The Bixby series is at least tolerable, but anyone who has observed the other two will understand the level of quality fans back then were dealing with. And so it went that in 1979, the two Captain America movies were both bombed attempts at pilots for a future series. VHS cassettes were released in 1998, and these titles are popular bootlegs at conventions, but I wouldn't expect them on DVD anytime soon. If I were Marvel, I would go out of my way to pretend they didn't exist.
Purists were not pleased with these incarnations mainly because they strayed far from the comic books. To be truthful, even if they had been extremely faithful, it's doubtful either device would have been enhanced. Aside from the performances, this Captain America possesses little value and any discernable charm stems from the cheesiness factor. The opening shots bring the audience in as Steve Rogers' blue panel van rides along the coast. His service in the United States Marine Corp. is over and now he's aiming to be an artist with no responsibility, who just drives up and down the coastline. At this point you're thinking, he is definitely one step away from becoming a super hero. After getting his mail, he hits the road to meet Dr. Simon Mills (Len Birman) and his friend Jeff Haden (Dan Barton). On the way, his trip is sabotaged when a truck deliberately spills oil on the road, which causes him to wreck. Shortly thereafter, Mills informs Steve about the top-secret work his father did, taking down major villains and so forth.
Because of this, his foes mocked his father, calling him "Captain America." Ok, which writer thought it would be interesting if the name of the super hero had a negative connotation? Anyway, Big Daddy Rogers also helped develop a super-steroid called F.L.A.G. (Full Latent Ability Gain). It apparently only works with the genes of Rogers' father and himself. Initially refusing to contribute, he has no choice when Lou Brackett (Steve Forrest) and his thugs, the same ones who planted the oil slick, cause Steve to wreck his motorcycle. He dies, but is revived by the injection of the F.L.A.G. serum, which supplements his strength and senses much like a trip to GNC would. Brackett, who ended up killing Rogers' friend Jeff, was trying to find some microfilm Jeff was hiding relating to the building of a neutron bomb. What they plan to do with this is largely unknown until late in the film, and why they go out of their way to hunt and kill Steve is more of a mystery.
Eventually, Steve is eager to help Mills and the government out with tracking down the culprits who murdered Jeff and stole the film. The plot makes almost zero sense since no one ever bothers to detail why Brackett wants this bomb, and when they do reveal the motive, the viewer couldn't care less since the movie is almost over. When Brackett does get the microfilm, he bafflingly kidnaps Mills' associate Wendy (Heather Menzies-Urich) and Jeff's daughter Tina (Robin Mattson). He tells Steve and company to stay away or they will die. It's all ludicrous because all Brackett had to do was take the microfilm and go forward with his plan. Steve Forrest's Lou Brackett is quite possibly the most unremarkable and underdeveloped villain you'll set your eyes on. He reminds me of a poor man's Richard Dawson or George Hamilton. I didn't even know that could be a reality until watching this sludge.
Steve's transition from ex-Marine and wannabe painter to Captain America takes...awhile. Director Rod Holcomb, along with screenwriters Don Ingalls and Chester Krumholtz, opt for the Christopher Nolan approach in that Steve obtains his abilities through relatively realistic means. His powers come from a steroid, instead of a mask he wears a motorcycle helmet, and instead of a shield, he uses a plastic circular object that was evidently purchased at the $0.99 store. Mills, who claims to be juggling multiple missions for the President, has entirely too much time on his hands, which is proven once he transforms Steve's ugly panel van into…a nicer panel van. Ok, it can launch Steve's motorcycle out the back, which is followed by those torturously long sequences of him racing his colorful bike in the desert. The desert looks like a patch of barren land in Wyoming somewhere, and he simply goes in a circle as a helicopter chases him back over the same ramp many times. Captain America is one hell of a stunt daredevil, let me tell you.
This is my motorcycle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
Len Birman is heart-achingly straightforward as Simon Mills. In one hilarious scene, he shows Steve that the shield is a weapon, and then uses it as a Frisbee, effectively guaranteeing that it will give some sap a bad headache. He establishes an unhealthy obsession with Steve by interrupting his kiss with Wendy, and then proceeding to have a nice walk along the beach as they wear short shorts with a soft breeze. The smooching between Steve and Wendy is confusing as it happens out of nowhere and their romance is never rekindled by the conclusion. Heather Menzies-Urich is Wendy, and she accepts this lip-pushup despite its creepiness. At first, I would have labeled the only asset of Captain America: 70's Boogaloo as Reb Brown's portrayal of Steve Rogers, but that grinds on you by the second excursion. He's not the most honed actor, but he delivers a quiet, unassuming performance and tries not to overplay his hand. He strolls through every scene with a Baby Huey, jock-like presence as a dude who certainly spends time in the gym, but he's also soft-spoken and kind. However, his calm persona makes it impossible to become invested in him, and he does venture dangerously towards hippie territory with his carefree attitude. Plus, if you ever watch Brown in Yor: The Hunter from the Future, you'll sour on him quickly too.
Holcomb's direction lacks oomph, and although most would cite the absence of the iconic costume until the final portion of the movie as a problem, I would disagree slightly. I would have appreciated the gradual build up of Rogers growing into Captain America, but the chief flaw is the way that progression is handled, free of suspense, with pedestrian camerawork, mostly insipid acting, and action that you will make you catatonic. For instance, the brilliant minds behind this adventure went out of their way to limit the violence on screen. In one sorrowful scene, Captain America punctures an oil pipe and sprays it on the pavement so the baddies slip and slide all over the place. Imagine a bit from The Pink Panther franchise taken seriously and you'll get the idea. If someone is being thrown or hit, they will always land on a soft surface, or the water. Another moment has our titular hero bending an exhaust pipe into the vent of a truck to smoke out Brackett. Yeah.
The worst ingredient is the music from Pete Carpenter and Mike Frost, which is agonizingly vintage 70's, and therefore comes across as sounds one would hear from a bad porn soundtrack. The recurring theme is now stuck in my head whether I like it or not, and trust me, I like it not. My favorite sequence has to be when a tied up Steve Rogers, forcibly taken by Brackett's henchmen, breaks free of a moronically tied rope, and proceeds to attack the trio of men inside a meat packing plant. He swings around on the meat hooks, causes them to slip on the floor, and crushes them with huge slabs of meat. This might sound cool, but it's the opposite. In terms of memorable meat action scenes, Rocky Balboa still stands safely at the top of the mountain.
Final Rating = 3.5/10.0
CAPTAIN AMERICA II: DEATH TOO SOON (TV-1979)
Starring: Reb Brown, Len Birman, and Christopher Lee Directed By: Ivan Nagy Written By: Wilton Schiller and Patricia Payne Running Time: 83 minutes Original Air Date: November 23, 1979 Missing Since: 1998 Existing Formats:VHS Netflix Status: Not Available Availability:Extremely Rare
As the second movie begins, once again the audience is privy to stock footage of a panel van cruising the coastline. At this point, I am contemplating a full-scale attack on my television set. Eventually we are whisked away to a beach, where oodles of activity is going down, including a black dude, wearing bikini shorts and belly shirt, who is roller-skating backwards with a boombox on his shoulder. Director Ivan Nagy lingers on this guy for too long until we get to Mr. Rogers, painting an old lady. Her name is Mrs. Shaw, and he speaks to her like she's mentally challenged. He learns that there is a merciless gang running around stealing money from the elderly as they cash their pension checks. Not to worry, Steve tails Mrs. Shaw one day and confronts the gang, which is two guys, one on foot and one in an orange dunebuggy.
Cap'n Crunch overpowers the dangerous forklift driver.
This first action sequence has Captain America tracking down one of the criminals, who draws a knife and wields it insanely without actually making any movement to hurt him. Captain America throws his Frisbee (err shield), which flies over the knifeman's head. He smiles, assuming the shield has missed, and what feels like 30 minutes later, it returns, hitting the guy in the back with a plastic thud and knocking him unconscious. The Captain later catches the dunebuggy driver on the beach by running beside him, instead of just hopping back on his bike. This movie is shorter, and already it feels much longer. This time the story concerns the terrorist Miguel (Christopher Lee), who has kidnapped a scientist (again!!) in hopes of obtaining his formula to cure the aging process. Sadly, the prized scientist, Prof. Ilson (Christopher Cary), head of NSL's Biological Research Bureau, must first find out how to speed aging up before being able to slow it down. This prompts Miguel to threaten the US. He will contaminate a city with rapid aging if they do not hand over billions...yadda yadda yadda.
The bulk of this script focuses on Steve trailing the shipment of the MacGuffin chemical needed to finish the rapid aging solution. This takes him to the small town of Belleville, where no resident likes strangers, namely muscular blonde dudes that are 6'6" and drive strange dark vans. Who could blame them? Steve snoops around, gets into fights with average Joe's who are working for Miguel, and falls for the widow Helen (Katherine Justice) and her adorable son Peter. Steve has brought his cat Heathcliff along as well, which he paints regularly. Yes, Captain America paints kitty cats. Now you know why I am scarred for life going into the new film starring Chris Evans. Meanwhile, Miguel is pretending to be the Warden of the Waterford Federal Penitentiary, and that is where he keeps Prof. Ilson. Miguel informs us that no one would think to look for a terrorist in an American penitentiary. He is right on there, because the very notion is beyond asinine. Apparently, no one at the prison, nor anybody who visits, knows what the real Warden looks like. My heart is pumping wondering if Captain America will get to the bottom of this dastardly act.
Reb Brown's Steve Rogers is almost spineless in this movie, so even without my glasses, I can see why this did not get picked up as a TV show. Who would root for this buffoon? The goons of Belleville who first ruin Steve's painting, but then gather more hick friends and surround him when he doesn't leave town, should have immediately been beaten into oblivion, but this Captain America must be gentle and aloof, not an instigator who throws the first punch. And so we observe as Steve gets pushed around until finally he retaliates. He then runs to higher ground so he can toss the bad guys into a bed of hay. I mean, what would have happened if they had fallen onto the street? Seeing blood is out of the question damnit! The cast members who must absorb Captain America's limp offenses are appalling overactors. In an earlier sequence at a shipyard, one factory employee literally runs headfirst into Steve's shield. Brown appears lost in this muddle of a story, and no one on board seemed to remember that Captain American should be inspiring, not a lazy oaf that paints all day waiting for a mission that allows him to toss a shield around in red, white, and blue colors.
Surprisingly, Miguel is played by Christopher Lee, and the majority of views would describe his very presence as a strength, but his performance is the definition of "phoning it in." Lee has an intimidating voice, but not even James Earl Jones could salvage this banal dialogue. It is cruel and unusual punishment to see Lee give the old college try of inducing fear. Wendy has been recast for this installment, and the role is now filled by Connie Sellecca, who has dark hair instead of blonde like her predecessor. Oh well. She drives a Firebird convertible, which sticks out like a sore thumb in a movie where our hero chugs along in a Dodge Conversion van with birds and a rainbow strip on the side. Len Birman's Simon Mills is basically a genius during this mission. He marches into the destroyed lab of Prof. Ilson, and instantly picks out the faint message he left on a piece of glass, deciphers it, and can recall the full history of Miguel within seconds. I am of the opinion that Mr. Birman actually thought this was all real. That can be the only explanation for someone who took the material so seriously.
Steering clear of the source for riveting substance can be a success, but in this case screenwriters Wilton Schiller and Patricia Payne should have been loyal to the comics waiting to be adapted. By maintaining the angle that Steve Rogers is a down to Earth super hero, whose abilities stem from F.L.A.G., it limits the opportunities for him to flaunt his skillz as Shaquille O'Neal would say. His strength is showcased by throwing his motorcycle from the ground high onto a prison wall. It lands perfectly, leading me to believe he acquired some telepathic traits from Professor Xavier as well. His outstanding sight is demonstrated by watching Reb Brown squint. Ugh. No matter what decade this debuted in, and regardless of the special effects technology of the time, this is absurd and Captain America is a doofus. The "What Were They Thinking?" scene is awarded to the segment where Captain America is chased to a dam, and then is driven off it, plummeting hundreds of feet and escaping unscathed.
Christopher Lee scheming as the spooky Miguel.
The climax, if that's what you want to call it, involves a chase sequence that will undoubtedly add years to your life, much like Miguel's rapid aging liquid. Ivan Nagy is no William Friedkin, folks. Captain America leaps from the prison wall into the air with his motorcycle and during this jump transforms his bike into a hang glider to chase Miguel through empty streets. Why this hang glider was not used during the damn fall is anyone's guess. Miguel, the international terrorist, drives a gray station wagon. Talk about inconspicuous. Was anyone attached to this project paying attention to the plot? The holes are gargantuan, but it's as if they only care about putting Reb Brown in the costume and replaying the theme music over and over again until our ears bleed.
This sequel has more action, but as that is the worst aspect of this miserable experiment, it is not an improvement. Captain America II: Death Too Soon is more of the same. None of the flaws have been corrected, only magnified. The conclusion is lackluster, and all we're left with is the idea that somebody on the crew had an obsession with animals. Honestly, you will see tigers, horses, dogs, cats, cows, and a lamb to just to name a few. Is this a Captain America movie or "Evil Knieval Goes to the Zoo"? Director Ivan Nagy would stand at helm for many more TV movies before diving head first into porn.
The first time I saw these two movies, I talked to fellow 411mania colleague Leonard Hayhurst about them. We both agreed they were bad, but I was a bit kinder. Perhaps I had expected the worst garbage imaginable, who knows? Having sat through these a second time, I realize now how generous I was and how truly awful these movies are. I sincerely doubt you'll ever see these on DVD, but even if you did, who would be foolish enough to spend money on them? FYI, the transfers are dark and dingy, making the poorly staged action even worse to endure. Maybe Reb Brown will appear at a nearby convention one day so I can question him about these monstrosities. If I were an optimist, I would say neither of these movies are as bad as the Spider-Man TV movies (or show), but I can promise everyone reading that I will never revisit these again.
Final Rating = 2.5/10.0
Next week, make sure to check back as I review the 1990 Captain America movie starring Matt Salinger.