Movie Review: Captain America (1979 TV Movie)

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.31.06A couple weeks ago, my son and I started rewatching the Captain America and Avengers films in anticipation of Captain America: Civil War. I had actually not purchased Cap 2 or Avengers 2 on blu-ray, so I hopped over to Amazon and snagged them. One of those “Other Suggested Items” caught my attention: a DVD with both late 70s Captain America made for TV movies on it, for $4. How could I argue with that price? The day after we watched Civil War, I popped the DVD in and selected the first movie, to my son’s protest. “Just give it ten minutes,” I asked, and we did that, and more. It is one of those strange movies that are so bad they are good. Think Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster, or The Giant Claw, but with a superhero instead of bad monster effects.

Cap ’79 begins with a scintillating sequence of a custom conversion van driving on the coast. This lasts for several minutes, and is accompanied by generic 70s era music. There are lots of aerial shots here. The producers clearly wanted to get as much mileage out of their helicopter rental as possible, because there are several such sequences wasting time over the course of the film. Occasionally, the camera zooms in enough to see a blond guy driving the van. He might or might not be Steve Rogers, for all we know at this point.

Steve Rogers (and Captain America later, no need to swap actors!) is played by Reb Brown. Mr. Brown is tall, broad shouldered, and handsome enough, but, at least at this point in his career, has no stage presence whatsoever. He is the cinematic equivalent of a potted plant; he looks pretty good, but doesn’t really do much other than take up space. We learn that the TV movie version of Steve Rogers is an ex military guy who is wandering the land, trying to find himself, or some such thing. I think mostly he just wants to drive that sweet van around. (Side note: I wonder what Steve would think of the A-Team van?)

After a scene where Steve draws a picture for a beach bum friend, the bad guys first appear. Said bad guys try to kill Steve by spraying fresh oil on the highway. What a diabolical and reliable scheme! Their motivation for attempting to murder Steve isn’t clear at this point in the film, and after watching it all, I’m still uncertain why they’re doing this, other than It’s In The Script. Steve survives the wreck (which was more accurately a fender bender), then uses a motorcycle for a while instead. I think maybe he was a pro motorcyclist or something? When he had time for that in between tours of duty, who knows, but whatever.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.32.44The country’s best scientist, Dr. Simon Mills, portrayed by Len Birman, gets in touch with Steve. I like Dr. Mills, the actor is very good, really the best thing in the movie. Doc informs our “hero” that years ago, Steve’s dad had created a super steroid (yes they straight up call it that) called F.L.A.G. (Full Latent Ability Gain). I take it back what I said about Len Birman, I think that acronym is the best thing in the movie. Anyway, these steroids worked fine on Steve’s dad, but since he was murdered, no one has been able to make F.L.A.G. work. Not without killing a bunch of lab rats, anyway. Dr. Mills asks Steve to help them by giving blood and whatnot so that they can try to perfect the steroid formula. As a patriotic veteran, and innately noble soul, Steve graciously volunteers, even at great personal risk to himself.

Wait! No, that’s not what happens at all. This version of Steve Rogers wants nothing to do with any of it, he just wants to drive around, visit beaches, and be a starving artist. For real. Some hero this dude is.

Later, the bad guys corner Steve and he is gravely wounded. Dr. Mills, for some reason, is the presiding surgeon. He decides that the only way to save Steve’s life is to administer F.L.A.G. to him. Without Steve’s permission, of course. Within moments of his injection, Steve recovers. F.L.A.G. works as well on him as it did for his father. He’s up and around in record time. Feeling the emotional toll of his near death experience, a grateful Steve dons the costume and goes off in search of the bad guys to foil their plot.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.35.47Nope, wrong again! Steve is outraged at Dr. Mills for saving his life! The anger he shows is probably the most animated Reb Brown gets in the whole movie. It’s unfortunate that he only really acts when his character is being a jerk! The guy has no interest whatsoever in being a hero. It’s only after he gets out of the hospital and is attacked a THIRD time by the baddies (in a meat processing plant, naturally) that he changes his mind. He spends a day at the beach in some uncomfortably small swim trunks chatting it up with Dr. Mills and his lovely assistant Dr. Day. Steve and Day kiss once, and never really talk to each other again. Are they now a thing? I don’t know. It’s weird. Steve draws a picture of a star spangled costume, showing that he accepts his fate. And thus, a hero is born. Wow. What an inspiring origin!

Remember the sweet van? It’s back, this time, outfitted with a motorcycle launching mechanism. Dr. Mills and all the other secret science folks were busy while Steve was at the beach, I guess. You can’t really talk about Captain America without mentioning his shield, right? It’s absolutely iconic, and a huge part of the character. It would have been easy for the creators to skip the shield, but they don’t, and I appreciate that. Instead of being made of a vibranium-adamantium alloy, it’s clear bulletproof plastic of some sort. Eh, okay. It reminds me of the energy shield Cap wielded for a while back in the 90s. Dr. Mills shows Steve that the shield can be both a defensive tool as well as an offensive weapon. The doc gives the shield a heave, and it flies for a bit as depicted by some very sketchy special effects before Steve catches it. That’s the first, last, and ONLY time anyone ever throws the shield in the movie. THE DOCTOR GETS TO THROW IT, NOT CAP. I changed my mind again, Dr. Mills really is the best thing in the movie. My brain is hemorrhaging from confusion at this point.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.36.24Another cool feature of the shield is that it is the windshield for the bike. I will admit that this motorcycle is sweet. It’s red, white, and blue all over the place. There are jets to get the speed up when needed, and also a silent mode that eliminates all engine noise. Steve, being an accomplished motorcycle rider, takes his sweet new toy out for a spin. A very, very long spin. Handily, there are some ramps and stuff on this super secret government base for him to play on. I know Evel Knievel was the bee’s knees at this point in history, but all this motorcycle stuff is excessive. It’s Captain America, not Ghost Rider, for crying out loud! Lo and behold, a helicopter full of bad guys appears, and they chase Steve down. He uses a ramp and the jets on the bike to jump into the helicopter and dispatch the evil guys. I’m still not sure why they feel he’s such a threat to their plan, which we’ve learned by now is something about a bomb. Like I said before, it’s unclear.

We have now been watching this movie for an hour and ten minutes, and finally thing are starting to move along. Drs. Mills and Day, along with some super hearing assistance by Steve, figure out where the bad guys are. Mills drops a bombshell, telling everyone that people used to call Steve’s dad Captain America, teasing him, I suppose. Yes, a nickname used to BELITTLE HIS FATHER is taken as the son’s superhero call sign. (I can’t even.) Dr. Mills tells Steve to “shove Captain America down their throats” which makes everyone uncomfortable, and then, at long last, Steve dresses up in his superhero suit (based on the drawing he made earlier, a mashup of Evel Knievel and the classic costume). What does he do first? He drives off on an extended motorcycle scene, of course.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.37.58

Finally, FINALLY, we have Captain America taking on some bad guys in hand to hand combat. Or, you’d think we would have it, but he ends up sneaking around the oil refinery bad guy HQ more than anything. He can jump really high, you see, and even though he is clearly visible on the outdoor catwalks, no one notices him until it’s too late. One thing I nearly forgot that simply must be mentioned is the sound effect that accompanies every display of Cap’s superpowers. It’s the Six Million Dollar Man/Bionic Woman noise, almost exactly. Come to think of it, this Cap’s origin has more in common with astronaut Steve Austin than it does the comics.

In a very odd sequence, Steve breaks an oil pipe and sprays it all over a patch of ground. The inept security guards run right into it, and we are treated to slipping sliding hijinks. Cap watches from afar, laughing at them. I can see it now: when the creators wrote this scene, they were like “hey, remember how at the beginning they tried to kill Steve by spraying oil on the road? What if he sprayed oil back on them at the end? Man, that would be far out, right? Like, a thematic tie or something.” And then they went out for lunch at a fancy restaurant because they are Hollywood Writers and they are Important Creative Talent. The whole scene comes off as a Three Stooges bit. It’s totally awkward and out of place.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.38.45

Wasn’t there something about a bomb? Yes, indeed there was. Turns out the bad guys are sending a bomb somewhere else, and Cap has to go stop them! You know what that means: more motorcycle scenes! After several grueling minutes, Cap catches up to the truck hauling the bomb. He leaps off his bike in order to climb aboard, and inexplicably leaves his shield behind! There’s no way a bulletproof shield would in any way be useful from this point on, why even bother with it, you know? Cap uses an exhaust pipe to literally smoke out the head bad guy in the trailer with the bomb. Dr. Mills shows up, I think they disarm the bomb, and all is well.

Steve decides that he will now carry on his father’s work even more closely, by using the exact same costume Pappa Rogers used during his bad guy fighting days. Yes, that’s right, apparently Steve’s dad actually dressed up in a costume while crime fighting, and no one ever said anything about it until three minutes before the end of the film. I don’t get it, either, but the whole costume thing does explain why they called daddy-o Captain America. We are treated to a final scene of Cap riding on his motorcycle in his new costume, which more closely resembles the comic book version. He and Dr. Mills have a brotastic handshaking moment, and the credits roll.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.39.12Wow. This movie is really something. They managed to strip away almost every important attribute of Captain America. The key theme of the super soldier serum bringing out the inner qualities of Steve Rogers is totally abandoned. This dude is buff already, plus a motorcycle ace and an ex-soldier before he ever uses F.L.A.G., and that ruins it. Unlike the “real” version, this Steve doesn’t believe in helping other people and doing the right thing, either. He doesn’t even choose to use F.L.A.G., remember? Even when, due to events outside his control, he gets super powers, he still protests. Captain America is a lot of things, but a reluctant hero is not one of them.

This Cap doesn’t feel particularly patriotic, either. You get the feeling that he regrets his time in military service since he just wants to wander around doing nothing. Even when he does don the costume, he doesn’t fight America’s military enemies, just corrupt business men. There are no Nazis or even Soviet threats here. A Cold War era Red Skull reimagining would have made sense and could have been cool, but no. The villains feel like something from The Incredible Hulk TV series, which I am sure was a large influence on this movie. I believe it was supposed to be a backdoor pilot for a Cap TV show, but the ratings weren’t there, and instead it spawned only a sequel TV movie.

If the creators hadn’t ignored what makes Captain America such a great hero, the movie would have been better. It could have inspired a decent TV show that was fondly remembered today. Instead, we got a bizarre mashup of the Bionic Man and Evel Knievel that doesn’t really work. Do I regret watching it? Not for a moment. It is perhaps the most 1979 thing you will ever come across, from the music to the fashion to the low budget. This Captain America movie isn’t good by any means, but the nostalgia factor and the excessive liberties (if you’ll excuse the pun) taken with the core character concept make it interesting. I’m curious as to how the sequel turned out, and when I watch it, I’ll be sure to share my thoughts here.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Clear Plastic Shields

 

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