Posts Tagged ‘Air Force One’


Forget Captain America. I wanna see more movies about the adventures of that President.

Really Awful
Somewhat better

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Captain America (1990). Directed by Albert Pyun.  Written by Stephen Tolkin and Lawrence Block (yes, the famous mystery writer, Lawrence Block). From the character by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Starring Matt Salinger, Ronny Cox, Darren McGavin, Scott Paulin, and Ned Beatty. 97 minutes. 1/2 *.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Directed by Joe Johnston. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley. From the character by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Starring Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci. 124 minutes. ***

Other Notable Film Versions, Not Covered By Us:  Captain America (very racist 1944 serial, pitting a barely-recognizable version of Cap against Japanese saboteurs); 3 Dev Adam, copyright-flouting 1973 Turkish film teaming a version of Cap with a version of the Mexican masked wrestler Santo, against a strangely villainous version of Spider-Man (we are not making this up); two TV-movies starring Reb Brown, Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon (both 1979). The latter is the most notable directing credit of Ivan Nagy, who is really best known for his appearance in the documentary Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, which paints him as the unheralded sinister force behind the scenes of that big tabloid story.

The greatest brainchild of the legendary pair of comic-book creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, was a scrawny but stout-hearted 4-F named Steve Rogers who received a super-soldier formula that turned him into that star-spangled sentinel of freedom known as Captain America. He fought Nazis in World War Two, and according to later Marvel lore suffered a span of decades in suspended animation. Revived, he battled a new generation of foes as a man out of time and a key member of that super-group known as the Avengers. Along the way he picked up an arch-enemy, the Red Skull, who had been personally chosen by Adolf Hitler himself to embody the terror of the Third Reich…and who also survived the years unchanged, to become one of the most persistent super-villains in comic book history.

There have been a number of versions, from an 1940s serial that bore little but name in common with the Simon and Kirby creation, to a pair of bland TV movies that are largely remembered today because the second of the pair was directed by a guy who seemed to have had a Svengali relationship with the Hollywood Madam,  but we direct our attention to the two most recent: one of which was so bad in every respect that it qualifies as one of the worst superhero movies of all time, and the recent big-budget release, which is no total masterpiece but nevertheless does as well with the character as any film could reasonably have been expected to.

Both movies jigger the origins of Cap and his numero-uno bad guy, in a way the comics never did, by establishing that they were created by the same scientist, who in fact creates Cap in large part to atone for the primal sin of having previously created the Red Skull. (This is not the pravda of the comics. There, the Red Skull is a lowly bellboy singled out by Hitler as proof that the right training can turn even that nonentity into the most dangerous man in the Reich. And, ummm, a communist imposter pretending to be him killed Peter Parker’s parents, thus making him an important figure in Spider-Man’s life as well.)

Both movies feature an origin scene for Cap that plays the same notes to significantly different effect; and both duplicate a fiery crash into Arctic ice that preserves the Captain until he can revived in our time.

But the movies are otherwise quite different, in that one is a film of almost jaw-dropping ineptitude that wastes the skills of every actor involved in it, and the other does what it does well and is expected to achieve blockbuster status. It’s instructive, in light of the latter’s success, to see how outrageously one can fail.

Captain America (1990): Before The Ice

There’s no way to get around this. This is not just a dud. This is not just a disaster. This is a film made by people who a) didn’t care; b) didn’t understand; c) didn’t seem interested in whether we could see their entire lack of interest in the enterprise; and d) screwed up even on the minimal level of their ambitions. It is likely the worst-made film we have ever reviewed on this blog, and, remember, we reviewed the awful third versions of House Of Wax and Night Of The Living Dead. Both of those atrocities were masterpieces next to this thing. We are serious.

The relatively low budget ($10 million in 1990 dollars) is no excuse. The movie had some genuine assets to waste. Among them were some first-rate character actors, including Melinda Dillon, Ronny Cox, Ned Beatty, and Darren McGavin. It had foreign and domestic locations, a marvelous old castle to stage the climax, and a legendary character; it was never gonna be spectacular, but any halfway fun screenplay and talented director could have made it an effective b-movie. Instead, every shot is either pedestrian or ugly, every set piece is unimaginative or addlepated, every plot twist is either a lame take on the four-color originals or a stupid innovation. And while many of the supporting players stand out, doing their best to elevate what must have seemed a sinking ship from day one, the leads are colorless and charisma-deprived.

There is an early sign of trouble in the first scenes, depicting the origin of the Red Skull, who is in this version not a crazed Nazi working for Hitler, but a crazed Italian who begins his career working for Mussolini. Now, this may have been tone-deafness to the mythos on the part of the filmmakers, but could also have been a requirement of international distribution; this writer contributed four novels to a book packager producing works based on Marvel characters and must report that, even then, using the word “Nazi” or mentioning Hitler in any book of the line was considered a no-no. It doesn’t matter. Only fans of the character as he appeared in the comics could have blown a gasket over the mere concept of an Italian Red Skull, had the story worked otherwise. But still, it’s a warning sign.

In any event, the Italian Red Skull begins life as an innocent kid who is, for reasons never satisfactorily explained, judged by the powers behind the Axis secret-soldier project to be the only person brilliant enough to merit the injection that will turn him into the desired ubermensch. So fascist soldiers break into his home, slaughter everybody, and drag him back to the castle where the brilliant Dr. Vaselli objects mightily to the super-soldier experiment being performed on a kid. So the last thing we hear is the kid screaming in agony as the potion works through his veins. None of this at all necessary, really, since nothing that ever happens in the film requires the Red Skull to be a paragon of physical fitness. True, he’s gonna trade blows with Captain America in an early scene, and win, but for all we see that’s no proof that he ever did anything but spend a lot of time in the gym.

We segue to the Rogers family home in California, where Steve is an adult survivor of childhood polio whose main infirmity is a limp that comes and goes, depending on how distracted Matt Salinger, son of author J.D., is in any particular scene.

Salinger, who couldn’t have picked a better role if his goal was to avoid the spotlight as much as his famous but reclusive Dad, is here a thespian of the Lee Majors / Gil Gerard school, except without their levels of conviction and presence. (He still has a career, and has worked steadily, but this film was as close as he ever came to stardom.) We get a scene where he’s headed off to the experiment that will turn him into Captain America, where he says goodbye to a family that seems to know exactly where he’s going and why. Way to keep the secret, Sparky.

In the closest this film comes to direct congruence with the blockbuster 2011 remake, the secret lab of Dr. Vaselli is hidden beneath a diner. (In the 2011 film, it’s an antiques shoppe.) The lady behind the counter grips a hidden handgun while exchanging pass codes with Steve’s escort, then lets the pair through. A bunch of military and government observers, including a pointedly referenced Senator Kirby (ha, ha), watch as Steve gets his injection. Then one of them turns out to be a Nazi assassin, killing Vaselli and ensuring that there will be no platoons of Captains America.

Freed of his limp, but shot by the bad guy, Steve goes to the hospital, where he is still enjoying bed rest when his military handlers show up to tell his doctor that he is needed on a mission of vital importance to stop the Red Skull’s missile aimed at Washington D.C. They actually say this. This seems excessive information to tell a mere sawbones, who would have worked on Steve anyway, but they say it in the hallway well within Steve’s hearing, thus motivating him to hop out of bed and say, I’m ready. So that’s all it took. Patton should have used that strategy while visiting the wounded in Sicily. He wouldn’t have had to slap anybody.

We are only a few minutes into the movie at this point and the dumbnesses are multiplying. The secret mission that only Captain America can perform turns out to be a raid on a Red Skull facility. Our guys know exactly where that facility is. There’s no evident reason why they can’t just, you know, bomb the shit out of it, since he has to parachute in anyway. Or if they need ground-level saboteurs, why they can’t parachute in a platoon or two with him. No. It must be this guy who they parachute in after what is carefully specified to be only 48 hours of training, and it has to be him alone. The Pentagon is certainly putting all its eggs in one basket.

A word about his Captain America costume. It’s seems to be a wet suit that somebody altered with a pair of scissors. The hasty handiwork is easiest to spot in close-ups of the eye holes, which are ragged and uneven. The A on his chest appears to be a completely different material, sewn on. This is, we’re told, a flameproof suit that is another of Dr. Vaselli’s one of a kind inventions. The late doctor was a lousy seamstress. It doesn’t matter much, as Cap will not be wearing it for long.

In any event, Cap invades the Red Skull’s stronghold and, after defeating a few henchmen just to demonstrate that he’s not a total loser, is himself defeated by the Skull (Paulin). The Red Skull as we see him here looks like the comic-book Red Skull for the only time in the film; get used to it, that mug is going away.

A word about super-villainous ranting. Any super-villain is going to spend some of his time ranting maniacally about how the hero doesn’t have a chance, bwah-ha-ha. That is part of the super-villain’s job. But in this movie, when the Red Skull looks at the defeated Captain America and says, I paraphrase here, “gee, you’re really not very good at this, are you? Are you really the best America could come up with?” it is easy to sympathize with him. Seriously. This Captain America lasts less than two minutes against the Red Skull. He’s not very good. The Skull almost seems disappointed. To his point of view, it likely seems silly to have gone to all this trouble getting a super-villain base, an ultimate weapon, a legion of followers, and a skull face, if this putz was all he was ever going to have to deal with at the end of it. You almost feel empathy for the chagrin he feels after all that wasted effort.

Anyway, the Skull ties Cap  to the rocket about to be fired at DC. There are a couple of views of Cap bound to the rocket; in one view, his famous round shield appears to be strapped there with him, and in another it’s clearly absent. It is certainly not being worn on his arm. Remember that. In a touch that the engineers at NASA must surely appreciate, the Red Skull  stands right next to his transatlantic rocket aimed at the White House, during the final fifteen second countdown; he doesn’t seem to be at all worried about being burned, let alone vaporized. Cap grabs him by the wrist, declaring that if he’s gonna go for a ride, the Skull is, too; whereupon the Skull whips out a knife and cuts off his own hand so he can escape. Why he doesn’t just cut off Captain America’s hand, which would accomplish the same result at considerably less pain to himself, is never satisfactorily explained. But hey, he’s a super-villain. He doesn’t have to make sense.

The rocket takes off. We cut to DC, where it’s still night despite the time zone difference between the East Coast of America and the night scenes taking place in Italy.  A little boy named Thomas Kimball, visiting DC with his family, declares that he’s gonna be President someday. Shushed, he sneaks out in his Pajamas to take a night photo of the White House, just as the rocket bearing Captain America heads for the big impact. He snaps a photo just before Cap, somehow still alive after a transatlantic journey exposed to high altitude, belatedly deflects the rocket. The photo the little urchin snaps is a clear picture of Cap, mask and all.

It will later be established that despite the rocket’s great speed, Cap will be able to remember the little boy who took his picture. At night. While the rocket went past. While he was busy trying to save the White House. That Cap never misses a trick, unless it’s like, you know, defeating the Red Skull.

We cannot stress this enough. This is a superhero who screws up his first and only mission.

And we’re still only a few minutes into the movie. The dumbness is that dense with detail. We haven’t even mentioned the film’s happy habit of showing us establishing shots of the White House with the helpful subtitle, Washington D.C. Thanks a lot. The movie does this so often it could power a drinking game. Another time it shows us a shot of the Vatican and informs us, Rome. Thank you.

So. The rocket overshoots the White House and crashes in Alaska. Whew, that was close. It’s either all or nothing with that rocket. No Mama Grizzlies peer out their windows and exclaim, “I can see the Red Skull’s ultimate weapon from my house!” Either way, the rocket doesn’t explode but it does put Cap on ice for a few decades. And so we get that hack movie’s traditional method of depicting the passage of time, a series of decades flying past (literally, the numbers, 1960, 1970, and so on), interspersed with newspaper headlines establishing major world events and key passages in the life of that little boy, Thomas Kimball, as he rises toward his election as President in 1992. (Yes, he’s Bill Clinton.) The newspapers, a local rag from Tommy’s home town of Springfield, demonstrate the shockingly low standard of journalism in his community; not only does one headline misspell his town as “Sprinfield”, sans g, but a closer look at the stories about our hometown boy reveal that several of them, possibly all of them, have lead grafs that establish them as actually stories about a local woman in trouble over a matter of child custody. I mean, this movie actually contrives to suck in ways that few other movies have even imagined.

Finally, we arrive at 1993, and President Clinton – er, Kimball, now played by Ronny Cox and working on an environmental initiative that one of his Generals, Darren McGavin, doesn’t like.  And we’re in the hell where the rest of this interminable movie takes place.

Captain America (1990): After The Ice

We are not even half an hour into the film now, so unless we want to be here all day we must accelerate and just try to hit some of the low points.

The Red Skull is now the leader of an evil international consortium that was directly responsible for, among other things, the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King. Having had some plastic surgery, he no longer looks like the Red Skull, though he needn’t have bothered, since everybody still calls him that, and he still has scars and whatnot all over his face. His current plan, prompted from complaints by by his ally General Kolchak, is to kidnap the President and implant a mind-control device that will keep him from proposing any more environmental initiatives. This plan, unlikely as it is, would go a long way toward explaining away our current President’s crappy record of capitulation to his opponents in the House and Senate.

Captain America is unearthed in Alaska. He pops up out of the ice with the shield already slung on one arm – a complete contradiction to where it was when he was frozen – and rushes out into the wilderness.

President Kimball remembers the man strapped to a rocket from his childhood – and a nigh-universal childhood experience it is – and decides to send somebody to investigate. Of course, in this world, the President of the United States has no resources useful for investigating strange events, no FBI, no Secret Service, no CIA, no NSA, so he calls a friend of his, Sam Kolawetz, a newspaper reporter played by Ned Beatty. The Red Skull, who also hears about it, scours his vast international conspiracy for useful assassins and sends his daughter. Everybody, it seems, operates on the same budget as the film itself.

Now, get this. Captain America, who was found in a frozen wasteland in Alaska, is next seen racing through more congenial climes in Northwest Canada, still wearing the same uniform. He’s jogged a few hundred miles.

Piloting attack helicopters and snowmobiles, the Red Skull’s assassins show up to kill him at what is conveniently the very same moment Ned Beatty comes tooling around the corner in his rent-a-car. These people have a wonderful knack of converging in an area the size of a Canadian province, within thirty seconds of one another. Cap is rescued by Kolawetz, who pulls up and shouts, “Get in!” – an act that itself establishes how lame this version of Cap is, since you’ve got to be  a lame superhero indeed to actually need to be rescued by Ned Beatty. In Superman’s case it required Valerie Perrine. But we’ll let that pass, and note an even greater manifestation of heroic inadequacy. To wit, Cap is rendered suspicious by Beatty’s Japanese tape recorder and German car, and thus to escape this guy who looks like Ned Beatty pretends that he’s car sick and asks his “captor” to pull over. Beatty obliges, at at which point Cap jumps behind the wheel and drives away.

Yes, this peak of human perfection requires subterfuge to escape from Ned Beatty. Batman wouldn’t have needed subterfuge to escape from Ned Beatty. Hell, Robin the Boy Wonder wouldn’t have needed subterfuge to escape from Ned Beatty. They would have just beaten up the guy. Hell, Stephen Hawking might not require subterfuge to escape from Ned Beatty. This film’s Captain America requires the lamest of all possible  subterfuges to escape from Ned Beatty. One can only imagine how he would have handled a fight with one of the comic book’s many martial-artist, let alone super-powered, sparring partners: pretend even harder?

It gets better. The action moves to California, where in the course of tracking down his old girlfriend Bernie – who’s now literally an old girlfriend, ha-ha – Cap discards his costume for what will be most of the remainder of the film. Until the climax, he will have most of his remaining dull adventures as Steve Rogers.

Assassins sent by the Red Skull kill Bernie, and Ned Beatty, who though left on foot in the Canadian Northwest has still managed to return to the US and track Steve down (thus proving, again, that this Cap is a superhero who can’t even stay ahead of Ned Beatty).

Steve sees a TV report that the President of the United States has been kidnapped from a European hotel after an attack by twenty heavily-armed men. Nobody comments on the unlikelihood of even twenty heavily-armed men being able to kidnap the President, or suggests that if a movie is going to require this scenario it should damn well show it to us. But Steve somehow knows, without any evidence whatsoever, that the gang that pulled off this miracle is the very same gang that has been sending assassins after him. He just knows. It’s like knowing one gang of swarthy guys was responsible for a major terrorist strike when in fact there are several gangs of swarthy guys who could have done it. This is how we got fooled into invading Iraq. But Cap, or rather Steve, knows the correct culprits for a certainty, just based on the news report.

There’s a major bit of stupidity involving the search for Dr. Vaselli’s diary, which is conveniently exactly where she left it when the top-secret government lab was shut down. One would have expected the Feds to clean up that kind of thing. But we move on.

Not really.

 Captain America (1990): The Big Action Climax

The action shifts to Europe. Steve and his old girlfriend’s daughter Sharon take a commercial flight, which is a truly impressive trick considering that Steve has been on ice for fifty years and has no passport or ID.

Sharon rents a car and they drive around for a bit. Steve needs to get away from Sharon to keep from dragging her into danger, so he pretends car sickness and asks her to pull over. It is exactly the same trick he pulled on Ned Beatty. This is in short a superhero who not once but twice escapes somebody by pretending that he has to vomit. It is, by the standards of this movie, his superpower: pretending that he has to vomit. (Only a churl would suggest that it is a trick many members of the audience are currently duplicating.) The gambit is even more ineffective this time than it was the first. Ned Beatty caught up with him a continent away. Sharon catches up with him after only a few blocks.

There is some more action, all of it embarrassing. There is a car chase that splatters the requisite fruit cart. Gene and Roger must be so proud.

But rather than elucidate everything awful that goes on, which includes among things the revelation that Steve Rogers is so ineffective an action hero that he cannot even ride a stolen bicycle without plunging it into the harbor, we’ll just skip to the climax. At this point there’s maybe fifteen minutes left in the film, and your titular superhero has not done anything effective since he became America’s first best hope against the Nazis. He has in fact been in civvies, blundering around Europe, for a third of the film.

Sharon has been captured by the Red Skull’s goons and locked in a cell directly below the President’s, though a convenient hole in the floor enables the two to see each other. (They still don’t have a chance for a substantive conversation, which is important.) With twenty minutes to go until the serum in his bloodstream enables the Red Skull’s minions to perform the further operation that can turn him into their mind-controlled puppet, the President of the United States makes his move. He has, you see, managed to snatch a vial of acid from a tabletop right under the Red Skull’s nose (which, being the Red Skull, is a nose he shouldn’t even have, but we move on).

Burning through the bars and breaking out, the Prez tells Sharon, who has just been locked in the cell directly underneath his, that he will bring back help, and splits. Cornered on a parapet, he leaps over the side rather than allow himself to be captured, and is improbably snatched to safety by Cap, who is climbing the outer wall. It is  a awfully convenient for Cap’s heroic reputation that the Prez picked that precise spot for his suicide attempt.

Now Cap and the Prez compare notes. Why, you’re that guy who was strapped to that rocket all those years ago! And that must mean you’re that little boy! Cap enthuses, “Gee whiz!” (He actually says Gee Whiz, which we cannot complain about, as it’s entirely in character for even the most soberly-written versions of Captain America.) The President further advises Cap that “They’ve got Sharon,” which is odd, since there doesn’t seem to be any way for him to know that Cap knows Sharon. But continuity is a bitch, right?

So it’s time for the big fight against the Red Skull and his minions, during which – this cannot be stressed enough – the President of the United States displays a lot more derring-do than the titular hero. The Prez runs around decking goons, among them that traitorous General Kolchak. He gets wounded by enemy fire and still rises to fight some more. He is one tough President of the United States, even by the standards of an era that would a few short years later give us Air Force One and Independence Day. It is indeed far more enjoyable to watch him than it is to watch Cap, as Ronny Cox gives the hopeless role his all and Matt Salinger just seems to wish he’d disappear into his mutilated wet suit.

The Skull repeats the point that he made forty some-odd years earlier: that this Captain America really isn’t all that much. And again, he absolutely has a point. Herr, excuse me, Signore Skull got himself all red-skulled and everything, and all he gets is a loser in a wetsuit.

Anyway, it finally comes down to Cap’s desperate last-minute attempt to prevent the Red Skull from setting off the nuclear bomb in the Grand Piano. Yes, the Red Skull has a nuclear bomb in his Grand Piano. This makes even less sense than the Grand Piano’s location, atop the castle’s wall. Yes, the Red Skull has a Grand Piano with a nuclear bomb in it, exposed to the elements, atop the Castle wall.  It’s a nicely maintained Grand Piano too, which looks like somebody’s been taking care of it, or more accurately that the prop people put it there sometime since the last storm. It may be the silliest place for a nuclear bomb in the history of film, if you don’t count the time one was inside Woody Allen. But fortunately, Cap is able to knock our lunatic Liberace over the edge to his death, an act that somehow also stops the bomb from ticking down to zero. There’s one colossal close-up of our hero’s face, which we’re evidently supposed to cheer, and the credits come up.

The makers of this Captain America were the then-prolific Golan-Globus company, who bragged about it beforehand but somehow recognized it as the turd it was, and put it on a shelf for two years, where it languished until a stealth release on home video. It is notorious among superhero fans, but remained virtually unknown to the general public, much like Matt Salinger. Cap fans who wanted a big cinematic experience for their hero would have to wait 21 years.

Now this is what it should look like.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Times have changed. Superheroes are no longer some niche genre, to be relegated to poverty-row budget films made by people so embarrassed by what they were doing that they worked up excuses to have their long-underwear characters perform most of the film’s action in civvies. They were indeed, to an unfortunate degree, the linchpin of the movie industry. Budgets are poured into them. The movies are frequently if anything too big, in that sometimes they don’t even slow down enough to provide the emotional moments.

In the context we’ve provided, there’s very little reason to go on an extreme length explaining just how much the current Captain America film gets right. We will note the closest thing it comes to being a straight remake, the scene involving a retail establishment that hides the entry to the secret lab. The scene still provides us with a sign, a countersign, and an agent behind the counter who keeps her hand on a weapon until she is sure that the visit is authorized.

We will also note that by setting almost all of the action in the 1940s and investing the proceedings with such an evocative sense of period, it accentuates just what makes this particular character unique in the first place. For instance, it gives us a Steve Rogers who clearly has a hero waiting inside him while he’s still a ninety-pound weakling. He is principled, courageous, and – as established with one hilarious scene involving a flagpole – a problem-solver. He is not just a charisma-deprived dufus, chosen at random. He is a remarkable person, interesting even before he is injected with the power juice.

There’s a terrific character arc involving his relationship to Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), here as in the comics the guy responsible for the serum who turns him into Captain America; Tommy Lee Jones performing a role he could perform in his sleep, but performing it well; the Howling Commandos, another set of Marvel heroes who here go unnamed but are very important to the action; dialogue that at one point puckishly establishes the events of Raiders Of The Lost Ark as backstory; an appearance by the original Human Torch for people who look really fast; well-staged action scenes (if a few too many of them); and a nice sinister performance by Hugo Weaving, who was able to project a personality beyond a static mask in V For Vendetta  and therefore has little difficulty performing while Red-Skulled. Fans of the Marvel franchise films are provided geeky joy by the film’s connections to Thor, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk,and finally next summer’s The Avengers. There’s a better costume, a fine period song by Alan Menken, and some smart humor.

All of which is well and good, and certainly worth praise. We would spend more time on that praise, but somehow suspect that it doesn’t need to be sold any more by us than it’s being sold by word of mouth right now. We just need to point out its most important attribute.

Whatever else it is…it sure ain’t the 1990 version.

And now the wife leaps through mortar fire, seizes the American flag, and charges the Red Skull’s goons.

*

Second commentary by Judi B. Castro

Captain America (1990). Directed by Albert Pyun. Written by Stephen Tolkin and Lawrence Block (yes, the famous mystery writer, Lawrence Block). From the character by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Starring Matt Salinger, Ronny Cox, Darren McGavin, Scott Paulin, and Ned Beatty. 97 minutes. 1/2 *.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Directed by Joe Johnston. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley. From the character by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Starring Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci. 124 minutes. ***1/2

Other Notable Film Versions, Not Covered By Us: Captain America (very racist 1944 serial, pitting a barely-recognizable version of Cap against Japanese saboteurs); 3 Dev Adam, copyright-flouting 1973 Turkish film teaming a version of Cap with a version of the Mexican masked wrestler Santo, against a strangely villainous version of Spider-Man (we are not making this up); two TV-movies starring Reb Brown, Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon (both 1979). The latter is the most notable directing credit of Ivan Nagy, who is really best known for his appearance in the documentary Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, which paints him as the unheralded sinister force behind the scenes of that big tabloid story.

What was I doing in 1990 that made me fondly remember this turkey of a movie?   Was I so starved for comic book action fare to believe I was seeing a good film?  I can’t blame my memories on either age or youth, so I must have been just plain stupid(or well into a weekend).

This Captain America is poorly written, poorly directed, poorly filmed and sin of all sins, barely reminiscent of Cap at all.

Now, admittedly, I never really put Cap into the superpowers category of heroes.  He was more of a steroidal footballer than a superman.  He never had amazing powers, but had kinda Buffy-like  amped up systems and healing.  And man, what a goody goody.  He and Supes could have an aww-shucks contest and call it a draw.  Is that a super soldier?  I do like the fish out of water Captain Steve Rogers much more than the packing firepower adapt to anything one that has been around lately.

Which brings me to the newest Captain America film.  (Note I say film here and not movie!)  This was a fun time.  Sure, a whole heap of time is spent introducing weak gawky Steve, but I felt it time well spent if a franchise is to be born out of these seeds.  And, the last third did feel a bit compacted, but not to the detriment of the story.

This new version utilizes technology without abusing it.  I didn’t see the 3-D version, but that didn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the shots.  So, when Cap throws his shield, yes, evildoers must yield!  The storyline was coherent and the few flaws I found were just a comic geek nitpicking the inevitable changes for the series.

All in all Captain America (2011)  a major good time!

Captain America (1990) a good party game, but a lousy film.


“Why we didn’t fly, I’ll never know.”

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Poseidon Adventure  (1972). Directed by Ronald Neame and Irwin Allen. Written by Wendell Mayes and Stirling Silliphant, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons, others. 117 minutes. ***

The Poseidon Adventure (2005). 2-part TV-movie. Directed by John Putch. Written by Mary Church, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Adam Baldwin, Rutger Hauer, Steve Guttenberg, Peter Weller, C. Thomas Howell, others.  Extended version, god help us, 173 minutes. *

Poseidon (2006). Directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  Screenplay by Mark Protosevich, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Josh Lucas, Kevin Dillon, Andre Braugher, Emily Rossum, Mia Maestro, others. 98 minutes. * 1/2

Other Related Films: Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), sequel, starring Sally Field and Michael Caine, a critical and box-office bomb about salvage crews who discover more peril and more survivors after entering the capsized ship minutes after the survivors of the first movie are airlifted out; and, believe it or not, Sylvester Stallone’s flooded-tunnel movie Daylight (1996), which strands its cast in a situation Irwin Allen originally intended, many years earlier, to befall the various unlucky survivors of the first film, while they’re reunited on a train on their way to testify in court about the disaster. (You don’t wanna travel with those people any more than you wanna share a holiday with John McClain.) There was also an off-off Broadway musical, where an actor playing Mrs. Rosen in drag sings about how, in water, she’s a very skinny lady.

*

So there you are, chilling aboard a luxury liner on New Year’s Eve, singing your Auld Lang Synes, when all of a sudden, a whopper of a disaster hits, and the freaking ship turns upside down. Everything that was above you is now below you, everything that is below you is now above you, conversations about what was where now become comically and horrifically convoluted, and the ocean – motivated, perhaps, by an angry God – starts whipping up bigger and faster ways to kill you and the few others who happen to be left. Your only hope is a desperate climb to the hull, where there might, repeat might, be a way out. But the ship is not cooperating. The ship wants you dead.

This was the premise of The Poseidon Adventure, a bestselling novel by Paul Gallico that has some elements in common with,  but is otherwise very different from, any of the movies derived from its initial premise. It introduces characters like the tough cop Mike Rogo, his sexy but troubled wife Linda, the crusading preacher Reverend Scott, the crowd-pleasing old Jewish lady Belle Rosen, and the Shelby family, whose daughter Susan is here raped by a young crew member driven to temporary insanity by the trauma of the disaster. (She forgives his trespass immediately, tries to stop his subsequent self-loathing suicide, and upon surviving, hopes to keep his child; seriously, yuck.)  In this original version the ship capsizes due to a massive displacement of water caused by an undersea earthquake, and sinks much more slowly, allowing a much larger complement of survivors. It certainly has its degree of religious allegory, complete with a Christmas tree reconfigured as ladder to salvation, an angry Reverend so intent on his activist version of Christianity that he self-righteously knocks the tree over again, after all the people who helped raise it have already climbed, to prevent it from being used by those who hadn’t helped. (Nice guy.)  It, too, builds to a climax in an engine room that has become a vision of Hell, and subsequently to Reverend Scott’s death after angrily denouncing God.

The biggest surprise for the remaining survivors of Reverend Scott’s band is that after they emerge from the hull in tattered clothing, reeking of grease and oil and mourning their various dead, they see a much larger group (the ballroom passengers?) being rescued from the other end of the ship, where it seems not listening to Reverend Scott afforded them a much less troublesome disaster. But there are others. Among other things, Scott turns out to have had a secret sweetheart, who had looked forward to marrying him.

Clergy. Whattaya  gonna do.

This plot, somewhat altered for disaster-movie formula and dramatic license, became the 1972 film, which was such a monster hit it made twice as money as the year’s next biggest contender, Deliverance. Still one of the best films of its type, it was remade thirty years later, not once but twice in rapid succession,  less than a year apart, once as a two-part TV-movie, and once as a special effects extravaganza, both times (spoiler alert), poorly. None of them are high art. All three have capsizing sequences of equivalent effectiveness, within their respective resources and levels of technology. All three have cheesy characterizations and that gremlin of survival-under-impossible-odds stories, the sometimes too-easy-to-predict next person to die. All three present us with a pop song, sung by a contemporary chanteuse, just before the ship turns over on New Year’s Eve. All three have good actors who do everything they can with the material along with others who do everything in their ability to try to sink it.

You will certainly find any number of people willing to present even the original as, at best, a guilty pleasure, and at worst as an icon of monumental awfulness. But the truth is, it tells its story and largely tells it well. It is instructive to examine exactly why the remakes fail to rise to its standard.

The first movie: The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Few films illustrate the general decline in the quality of popular filmmaking since 1972 more than the quality of the original Poseidon Adventure, in large part because it was never intended to be great. Granted, it’s got broadly-drawn characters, scenes staged for the highest possible level of melodrama, a couple of impressive non-performances mixed in with the genuinely good ones, and dialogue that occasionally lowers itself to the level of the ludicrous.  But precisely because it was never intended as a great film, but rather as an entertaining potboiler, its strengths stand out in sharp relief opposed to the deficiencies of so many high-concept blockbusters released today. To wit: it takes time to introduce its players, making sure we have reason to care about what happens to them; it pauses regularly during the action, to make the drama about more than outrunning explosions and great walls of water while shouting simplistic catch-phrases; it stages its action scenes with enough clarity to ensure that we know where the people stand in relation to the dangers facing them, and how their actions affect how they survive (or don’t); it has enough respect for issues of life and death to make sure that its people are touched by the tragedies they overcome, and are still affected by them at the end; and it bothers, really bothers, to try to be about something, even if that subtext is calibrated to such a level that many, if not all, of its viewers will fail to consciously register it.

Contrast this to a modern-day blockbuster of similar disposability, where all too often something must be exploding on screen at every available moment, and action scenes are all too often spastically-edited sequences with shots of one second or less where even frequent recourse to a DVD remote’s pause button may not be enough to clarify what’s happening to anybody.  And the level of its achievement, compared to the general decay of the art, becomes frighteningly clear.

We’re not old fogies saying that they haven’t made a good movie in forty years. They have. But most throwaway popcorn movies have certainly gotten worse since the S.S. Poseidon first turned upside down, and there are few better ways to illustrate that than with the various things this throwaway popcorn film bothers to get right.

Take, for instance, the character of Mike Rogo, the tough cop and general antagonist played by Ernest Borgnine in this film. He is very much a “type;” loud, blustering, often wrong, always negative. His courtship of his much-beloved and difficult wife Linda (Stella Stevens), changed from the novel’s Broadway performer to an ex-prostitute who he says he kept arresting until she finally agreed to marry him, is revealed in a few lines of clumsily-delivered exposition, of the sort that has two characters with a shared past discuss facts that are known to both of them just so the audience can keep up. It is not great dialogue. But by the time it’s over, we know the kind of guy he is and we know that he’s not just the story’s designated asshole. Sure, he’s got his rough edges, and he’s uncouth in the way that only a character played by Borgnine (let alone Borgnine lit from below), can be uncouth, but he’s also an emotionally vulnerable guy, a genuinely well-meaning man, and the loving husband to a woman who rides him mercilessly because (we have no problem seeing) that’s the only way she knows how to express love. How much more satisfying is this, than a one-note shithead of the sort we will come to meet in Wolfgang Petersen’s Poseidon?

Now examine the dramatic pacing. In this film, the rogue wave that capsizes the Poseidon arrives at the best possible time, dramatically: a little less than half an hour in. By then, we have spent a few minutes with each of the important players and have a functional picture of who they are. We know that Reverend Scott (Hackman) is in trouble with the Church for preaching about a God who generally doesn’t get involved with human affairs and who wants us all to solve our own problems. We know about the raucous state of the marriage Rogo, and about Linda Rogo’s self-consciousness over her criminal past. We know that the Rosens are a nice couple headed for Israel to see their young grandson for the first time, and that Mrs. Rosen is a genuinely compassionate woman. We know that the Shelby kids, here traveling on their own for reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, bicker in the manner of any infuriating kid and long-suffering older sister. We know that James Martin (Red Buttons) is an affable lonely guy. These are not deep characterizations – and much rests on the shoulders of those performers gifted enough to invest these characters with their own vivid personalities, as opposed to a few like Carol Lynley who are definitely not. But it’s an adequate amount of time.

We also know, in that half hour, that the Poseidon is dangerously top-heavy, thanks to a tyrant from the cruise line’s front office, a stand-in for the Titanic’s real life J. Bruce Ismay, who refuses to let the put-upon Captain (Leslie Neilsen) take on additional ballast.

As audience members, we already know that the ship’s gonna be turning over sooner or later, and may resent the time spent on what we consider soap-operatics. But all of this is very necessary, so the characters on screen take on the appearance of people instead of actors getting out of the way as soon as possible so the stunt men and special effects wranglers can take over.

Then, once the ship turns upside down a few minutes after the coming of the New Year, and the dazed partygoers in the ballroom start to dig out from under the wreckage, the movie takes even more time,  almost half an hour, before the major players complete the process of figuring out what has happened to them, processing the tragedy, discussing what to do, figuring out that climbing to the engine room just might be a good idea, and finally climbing the Christmas tree to begin their fight for life.

Think of that. By this point the movie is almost half over. But nobody’s been running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Everybody has acted, if not exactly like people act, then at least close enough to how people act to wring recognizable drama out of the proceedings.

And even in the hour that remains, an hour marked by rising water, cliffhangers, explosions, death scenes, conflict between Scott and Rogo, and – as we’re about to see – more religious allegory than you can shake a stick at, the action frequently pauses long enough to allow everybody to interact, to contemplate everything that’s happening to them, to show their personalities and to agonize over whether what they’re doing is the right thing.

It’s flawless pacing, really. Seen for the first time or for the tenth, enjoyed on its own level or as an icon fit for mockery, it has almost no dead spots; everything is there for a reason. Even the water stops rising at the engine room, to accommodate the much-more-important impersonal dramatics at the end.

And then there’s the other element, the one that lifts this film above its follow-up The Towering Inferno and the  increasingly gamey disaster films of the 1970s: a religious subtext that energizes everything in it even for those viewers who choose not to notice it.

Reverend Scott Dies For Our Sins

Stirling Silliphant, who co-wrote the screenplay (and who also worked on The Towering Inferno, to larger but much lesser effect), was no slouch; he had written a genuinely great film, In The Heat Of the Night. He saw the levels of religious symbolism already at play in Gallico’s novel and reconfigured them, to very deliberate effect.

So what we get here is a Reverend Scott who lays out the general thesis with a multidenominational sermon on the ship’s deck: “Let God know that you have the guts and the will to do it alone. Resolve to fight for yourselves, and for others, for those you love. And that part of God within you will be fighting with you all the way. “

After the disaster – itself a literal act of God — we have the debate over the best route to survival couched in terms of doubt versus belief. The complacent purser thinks help must be coming. The Reverend, prompted by lonely bachelor James Martin, passionately argues that everybody needs to climb out – specifically, toward a spot near the propeller shaft where the hull is only one inch thick, as opposed to two inches. Pinning all their hopes on this slender chance of survival is, for Scott’s followers, an exercise in faith that some other force will provide deliverance once they travel most of the way. 

The first step, which could not possibly be more symbolic: climbing the Christmas tree.

The various adventures along the way include constant arguing between the doubting Rogo and the crusading Reverend, and at one point an encounter with other passengers who are “headed the wrong way.”

Mrs. Rosen dies saving the Reverend’s life, but without getting to the promised land –  not just the engine room, but her intended destination, Israel – herself. Her last bequest, which she begs Scott to bring to her grandson, is her Chai necklace.

The engine room is, as in Gallico, a vision of Hell, complete with leaping flames.

Linda Rogo, the reformed sinner, falls at the last minute to her death in the fires.

Mike Rogo, who has been the voice of doubt all along, cries out in rage at the religious figure who had briefly infected him with faith.  “You! Preacher! Murderer! I started to believe in your promises, that we had a chance. What chance?”

A sudden explosion sends a jet of scalding steam against the wheel valve that is the last barrier between the survivors and the engine room.  Outraged, the Reverend confronts God directly, leaping to the wheel and turning it by hand in an act of personal sacrifice that, given the temperature of the steam involved, must mean burning the shit out of his hands. 

He shouts: “What more do you want of us? We’ve come all this way, no thanks to you. We did it on our own, no help from you. We did ask you to fight for us but damn it, don’t fight against us! Leave us alone! How many more sacrifices? How much more blood?  How many more lives? Belle wasn’t enough. Acres wasn’t. Now this girl! You want another life? Then take me!”

Tell me that this scene, shown below, is not a crucifixion.

He offers his life as a sacrifice while dangling from something with wounded hands. And, just in case you fail to get the point, the red wheel that closes the steam valve is also hanging there, right above his head, like a cartoon halo. Sound at all familiar?

Rogo, backlit by flames, is lost in his own personal hell until James Martin challenges him to “do something constructive for once.” He turns his back on the fire and rejoins the others in their fight for life.

It is then, and only then, that everybody gets to the room with the propeller shaft, where they are heard by a helicopter crew that has landed on the hull, and who cut through the steel, admitting the light from above. (And finally, the helicopter takes them to safety, which amounts to ascending into the heavens.)

None of this is at all subtle. It is, once pointed  out to someone who has failed to consciously notice it, almost painfully obvious. But it is there. It is perceived on a subconscious level if not necessarily a conscious one by the audience who came to see Shelley Winters and Ernest Borgnine interact with rising water and explosions. It gives weight to everything here, and gives the story a psychological impact that most disaster films miss utterly.

(Incidentally, if you want to see great acting that you’ve likely never noticed, go back to the moment where Rogo curses the good Reverend, and FORCE yourself to look away from Ernest Borgnine long enough to check out Jack Albertson (“Manny Rosen”) who’s standing right behind him. Remember that, only about ten minutes earlier in the film, Mr. Rosen had lost his own wife; that they haven’t traveled far from the spot where her body fell; and that he can likely see her from where he’s standing. Now it’s just happened to another guy, in front of his eyes…and Albertson brilliantly acts Manny Rosen, desperately wishing there were something adequate to say. Because what Borgnine is doing is so compelling, NOBODY who sees the movie is looking at Jack Albertson at that moment. His performance hearkens back to the time where movies were not just a series of extreme close-ups, unconnected to anything any other actor is doing…but performers reacting to one another even when they were not themselves the center of attention.)

The TV-Movie: The Poseidon Adventure (2005)

Three decades later, the vagaries of rights and permissions resulted in not one but two separate and competing remakes coming out only a year apart.

Both fail miserably, but for different reasons, indeed diametrically opposed reasons.

The first remake, a two-part TV movie, suffered all the sins often endemic to creatures of that kind, among them woefully pedestrian direction, of the sort that will never stage anything in an interesting way if the obvious way is available first.

The dialogue is also substantially weaker, and the performers, who include types like C. Thomas Howell as the ship’s doctor and Peter Weller as Captain Paul Gallico (ha, ha, ha), are not up to fleshing out a pale teleplay with the mere force of their personalities.

The pacing is also a problem. The two-part network TV format requires that the film take a pause for commercial interruption every twelve minutes or so, all in service of a story that must delay the actual disaster until as late in Part One as possible, to make sure that there’s plenty of stuff worth tuning in for during Part Two. So the flipping of the ship doesn’t take place until about the fifty-minute mark, and the decision to try to climb out doesn’t take place until about twenty minutes later.

It is, we suppose, more than possible for the show to have filled that long wait with stuff an audience would have wanted to watch (see James Cameron’s Titanic, for a film many hated that nevertheless pulled off the trick at even greater length), but that’s not exactly what’s happening when the chief interpersonal story we have to sit through on the way involves the marital problems of Richard Clarke, a philandering novelist played by Steve Guttenberg. (If you have to lead with Guttenberg, you’ve already lost.)

The rest of the lead-up to the disaster comes from a fundamental misunderstanding by the filmmakers, who had read somewhere that tsunamis are only a couple of inches high out at sea and therefore jumped to the conclusion that the setup of the 1972 version was literally impossible. (They were wrong, in that what capsized the original Poseidon was not a tsunami, which indeed would have been impossible that far out, but a rogue wave…which can easily achieve the heights posited by the first film.)

What results from their flailing-about for another mechanism of capsizing the ship is a series of jaw-dropping, self-destructive story decisions.

They resorted to a terrorism subplot, which of course leads to many scenes of swarthy third-world types in the Poseidon kitchen exchanging meaningful looks as they plan to set their charges.

Yes. The makers of this film thought their version would work a lot better if the disaster was a terrorist plot.

The film’s Mike Rogo (Adam Baldwin) becomes a Sea Marshall working undercover to guard against such a plot. There are intimations of a troubled marriage, but his wife is back home and he is all business, just another steely-eyed, grimly determined hero of no particular distinction.  In place of Reverend Scott we get Rutger Hauer as Bishop August Schmidt, an affable and easy-going man of God who, when the disaster happens and the desperate climb to survival begins, is just another guy working alongside Rogo who is never really at odds with Rogo at any time.

Yes. The makers of this film thought their version would work a lot better if Rogo and their replacement for Reverend Scott were substantially duller people, who never argued. 

Even as the survivors strive to climb up through the decks, the focus shifts to land-based authorities striving to figure out what’s happened to the Poseidon, to locate it via satellite camera, to dispatch a nearby fishing trawler to its location, and to get a team of Navy SEALS to the site of the wreck in order to rescue people.

Yes. The makers of this film thought their version would work a lot better if we weren’t trapped alongside the people in a claustrophobic sinking ship, and were regularly reminded that the authorities were bending heaven and earth to send help.

There are uncounted other dumbnesses. This version’s Acre, a replacement for the doomed steward Roddy McDowall played in 1972, has time to indulge Richard Clarke’s aspiring-filmmaker son, a kid who’s attached to his camcorder and is here not only permitted to film his cheesy vampire film in restricted areas of the ship, but who is able to enlist Acre and other busy crewmembers as cast members. Somebody is able to send an e-mail to authorities from the capsized ship’s internet lounge, even though the broadcast towers are now underwater. Wonky shipboard geography leads to badly flooded areas of the ship several decks above areas that still remain dry…not just as the oddity that permits the last act of the original, but as an inexplicable regular thing. Suspense is torpedoed by the crowd in the ballroom not meeting their fates until very late in Part Two, and by a second group of characters leaving that room much after the first and still managing to catch up, thus underlining this movie’s criminal lack of urgency. (The ballroom doesn’t go under until the last few minutes. More bleeding urgency.)

Many of the original film’s set pieces are duplicated here, to much lesser effect because everything around them is so lame. We get the swim through the underwater corridor, the brave sacrifice of Mrs. Rosen, and Acre’s death in the shaft, which are here all unforgivably dull. And the death of Clarke’s mistress in the engine room, under circumstances that echo the prior film’s death of Linda Rogo, here acquires an ugly subtext as Mrs. Clarke seems downright satisfied by it.  (The implication is supposed to be that the marriage is saved, but seriously, if I were a philandering husband and saw that look on my estranged wife’s face immediately after my mistress’s horrific death…I would change my name and move to another state. That bitch is cold, and I wouldn’t be able to sleep in the same bed with her again without endless sweaty worrying about where I put the garden shears.)

The biggest problem, though, is that the makers of this miniseries completely misunderstood why characters with personal problems are included in this kind of story in the first place.

Here is an elementary lesson.  Stories illuminate character; character is put in sharp relief by stories. Even in action scenarios, you must have that or you don’t have a story.

In the original Poseidon Adventure, all that stuff with upside-down staircases and flooding compartments was there, in dramatic terms, to illustrate a movie-length argument between Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine. It is why the water seems to stop rising after Mrs. Rosen’s fateful underwater swim – because the argument is about to come to a head with the death of Mrs. Rogo, and more scenes of incoming water would only muddy the issue. That movie wanted a dramatic climax, not an action one…and in large part that’s what remains so memorable about it today. Please understand that we’re not saying it qualified as great drama, by any stretch of the imagination – but it was a story, dammit. It fulfilled the basic requirements of a story.

By contrast, this movie presents us with, naming one character at random, the reality-television producer played by Bryan Brown, who is so determined to have the little kid capture everything on his camcorder, for a possible future documentary. It presents us with that character and then does nothing of note with him. He is not tested. He is not revealed. He is just there. The same thing with the Bishop. He is not tested. He is not revealed. He is just there. And Rogo. He is not tested. He is not revealed. He is just there. And so on.

The only real dramatic arc is the one involving the marital woes of schmucky Steve Guttenberg…and, frankly, we know nothing more about his character at the end than we knew at the beginning.  Except that, you know, he had better spend the rest of his life hiding the Krazy-Glue.

There is one good moment, which deserves mention largely because it is the only good moment: a line or two spoken by Belle Rosen to the terrorist personally responsible for bombing the ship. Rogo goes to incredible lengths dragging this one-dimensional, sneering piece of shit up through the various levels of the ship, with an eye to making sure he lives to be interrogated about his backers. In the only words she ever speaks to the man, Mrs. Rosen says, I paraphrase, that her late husband had always told her that there were no evil people, only people in terrible pain. What, she earnestly asks him, hurt you so badly that you would want to do such a thing? He doesn’t answer; just stares back at her with hatred in his eyes. 

It would be nice if he took the bait,  even if his answer turned out to be a load of crap, because her question is the first time anybody in this entire movie comes close to having an interesting conversation. (See, for instance, the self-justifications of Gary Oldman’s evil terrorist in Air Force One. That’s what stopped him from being a one-dimensional villain, and made him a recognizable character, even if he was still so hateful that we cheered when he got thrown off the plane.)

 

The Attention-Deficit Summer Movie: Poseidon (2006)

There’s very little that needs to be said about the final version, except that if the middle one failed in large part because it was ponderously slow, this one failed because it never wanted to slow down.

It should have been much better. Wolfgang Petersen, who directed, is an accomplished maker of intelligent action films whose Hollywood work includes In The Line Of Fire and the aforementioned Air Force One. And he made one of the best underwater films of all time, a genuine world classic, Das Boot.

But his attention span, or his understanding of his target audience’s failing attention span, badly betrayed him here.

Check out the timeline. In this one the ship turns over (from another rogue wave) at approximately the fifteen-minute point, and the team of would-be survivors has started to climb out within the first half hour.

It thus only gives itself only about fifteen minutes to set up its characters, who are here largely defined not by their problems, but by their labels: a completely new set for this film, the beautiful stowaway, the ex-Mayor of New York, the suicidal gay guy, the young lovers, the dashing gambler, and the Designated Asshole.

It is possible for good actors to lend heft to such roles, but they need a certain minimum to worth with, and nobody here (not even Richard Dreyfuss, for pete’s sake), is more than a placeholder, here to shout urgent lines while dodging various dangers.

This is especially true of Andre Braugher, who plays the Captain. He dies early, of course, as the Captain in this story is supposed to, but the gap between a performer’s talent and the thinness of the character he’s been appointed to play has never been so vast. Is this what it’s come to, since Homicide? Doesn’t anybody have anything better for Braugher to do?

The Designated Asshole, played by Kevin Dillon, is a case that deserves special scrutiny. He is not an abrasive but essentially decent guy like Rogo, who causes problems because he has his own opinions. He is just a Designated Asshole. He acts like an Asshole, he dresses like an Asshole, he demonstrates he’s an Asshole, and – after demanding to be the first to cross a rickety structure – he dies, on cue and unmourned, an Asshole. The film doesn’t have any interest in characterizing him, or even the more important characters, any better than that.

There are some impressive set pieces. The struggle to cross a flaming scenic elevator atrium is more elaborate, in staging and in visual verve, than anything in either of the prior films. And the Dashing Gambler saves the day with a stunt that might have been considered over-the-top even in a superhero movie. But so what? With nobody to care about, and dialogue that from this point to almost the end of the film has been reduced to shouts of “Look out!” and “This way!”, it emerges as loud, colorful, fast-paced, and just as dull as the TV-movie.

There are some interesting, original situations. The only scene from this version that emerges as both new to this take and as great as anything in the original film is a period spent trapped in a vertical air shaft, as the people crammed near the top struggle with the grating that keeps everybody trapped in rising water. That’s a killer suspense sequence, and yes, fans of the original will be delighted to notice that they escape that trap by using a cross as a screwdriver.

There’s this, too. Unlike the folks from the 1972 version, these people actually start out with a plan for getting out once they reach the propeller assembly, one that makes sense within the context of the film. That’s good thinking, and in its own limited way an improvement on the original story. (It also, unfortunately, eliminates the faith angle, but hey, it’s a legitimately innovative plot point.)

It is of course woefully convenient for them that the disaster has conveniently left an inflated life raft floating a short swim from where they finally get out, one that indeed even has a working flare gun for their convenience. This is painful even though nothing that takes place before that point is even remotely convenient and it’s arguably just as convenient in the first film for Borgnine and company to reach the bottom of the ship just in time to hear the people walking around on the hull.)

But again: aside from the revelation that fireman-turned-mayor Kurt Russell is willing to die to save his daughter, and a suicidal subplot for the Richard Dreyfuss character that goes away as soon as the ship turns over, there are no character arcs here. These people are not tested. They are not revealed. They are just there.

By forsaking human drama, by failing to give its characters personalities, by eliminating subtext and by reducing almost the last hour and especially the last half-hour to shouting and yelling, with only scattered moments of identifiable human interaction, this version underlines exactly what has gone wrong with popular film since 1972. In 1972, Irwin Allen sank a ship with people on board. In 2006, Petersen sank a ship populated with stand-ins for people. In 1972, there was something going on behind the story. And in 2006, there were explosions going on instead of it.

The Captain’s Log

1972 version, a fine entertainment that looks better every year. 2005 version, three hours of made-for-TV lameness. 2006 version, a headache-inducing mess.

And now, the wife comes edging along the upside-down catwalk…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Poseidon Adventure  (1972). Directed by Ronald Neame and Irwin Allen. Written by Wendell Mayes and Stirling Silliphant, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons, others. 117 minutes. ***

The Poseidon Adventure (2005). 2-part TV-movie. Directed by John Putch. Written by Mary Church, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Adam Baldwin, Rutger Hauer, Steve Guttenberg, Peter Weller, C. Thomas Howell, others.  Extended version, god help us, 173 minutes. *1/2

Poseidon (2006). Directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  Screenplay by Mark Protosevich, from the novel by Paul Gallico. Starring Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Josh Lucas, Kevin Dillon, Andre Braugher, Emily Rossum, Mia Maestro, Alex Kingston, others. 98 minutes. 1/2

In 1972 I was 9 years old and wasn’t allowed to go to movies by myself quite yet.  My mother, at the same time, needed someone to go see movies that my Dad just wouldn’t stir himself to see.  Bingo!  The weekend and days off school movie duo was formed. Thanks to this mother/daughter bonding,  I got taken to see such amazing fare as “The Bad News Bears” and The Towering Inferno.  But the one that makes this retelling of childhood interdependency important was The Poseidon Adventure.

Now, I can’t remember what day of the week this happened, but I can remember the theater, the snacks and the sound system fritzing in and out during the previews.  My mom threatened to walk out if the sound wasn’t fixed PRONTO! (Actually said from her seat as loudly as possible).  That can really make a film outing memorable.

Well, the sound got fixed, the movie rolled and my nine year old’s brain swore off ship travel for the everlovin’ future.

This film was my Jaws.  I thought that every Ocean liner was going to roll over in the next high wave.  I cried when my grandparents took their next cruise.  That year was absolute water hell for me.

So, did the original film make any kind of impression on me? Naah, not at all.  Just because I didn’t want to get on Disney’s 20,000 Leagues  ride for fear of drowning, had nothing whatsoever to do with The Poseidon Adventure.  Right?

Jump ahead to 2010.  Adam and I are discussing the prospective films to cover in this blog and up jumps good ole Poseidon.  I knew about the film remake, but had never heard (or had completely blocked from my mind) the TV mini.  So, we agreed they were ample fodder for our cannon of comparison.  Then, I won a free cruise.  Boy, can childhood trauma jump back and bite one’s butt.  Adam was ready to cover these early this year, but I begged off the watching until long after we returned from our trip. Did it make any difference?  Not really, but I may have actually enjoyed the cruise a bit more, not having the reminder looming in wait. (And yes, I fear being trapped in high rise fires too)!

OK  Garbage reminisces out of the way on to the work at hand.

Poseidon (1972):  Still a great adventure.  Fully developed characters, great effects and a story that says something about the constant struggle within each of us to balance survival with our humanity.  With the recent rewatch the Wesley effect of the child shall lead is a bit too thick, but I loved it back then.  The film also reminds everyone to never trust the guy wearing the uniform he’s always wrong and will die soon enough. (Show me a surviving crew member here).

Poseidon (2005):  Great idea in theory.  Make a 2-part miniseries (or maxi movie) using the source material.  Great, but what happened to the novel?  Somewhere in developmentland, some brainiac said “ditch the story, blow stuff up and make it less preachy”.  So they did.  They also slowed the action down to less than a turtle trot and added crap that was pure distraction.  Why steal from the original film’s key scenes, if they no longer tie the story together?  Nobody really took the time to read this script front to back.

Poseidon (2006):  Wow.  What can go wrong here?  Everything!  Lose the characters, dive into the emergency and never give your actors a chance to perform.  Here its all stunts and special effects.  Is anybody looking for story anymore?

Its fantastic that we live in an age where computers can seemingly generate anything we can dream up, but letting the effects run ramshod over the story, the settings, the very characters that make up any film is probably the main reason why I prefer the films from  the 30’s and 40’s.  Sure, the whole group of disaster films from the 70’s still fill my heart with nostalgia, but to me now they signal the beginning of the end.  This is when the MEGA movie began to take over and I began to lose interest in much of Hollywood’s output.