Posts Tagged ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’

First Review by Adam-Troy Castro

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (original title: Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo; 1966). Directed by Sergio Leone. Screenplay by Age and Scarpelli, Sergio Leone, and Luciano Vincenzoni. Starring Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef; also Luigi Pistilli. 177 minutes. *** 1/2.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (original title: Joheun nom nabbeun nom isanghan nom; 2008). Directed by Kim Ji-Woon. Screenplay by Kim Ji-Woon and Kim Ji-Suk. Starring Song Kang-Ho, Lee Byung-Hun, Jung Woo-Sung. 139 minutes. ***

This much needs to be said.

To cover these two films together, we stretched the definition of “Remake” almost to be the breaking point. There is no legal connection between them, no shared source material that inspired both. They have completely different stories and even completely different tones, though the Korean film borrows its title, the power dynamic between its three main characters, and even much of the staging of the final showdown from the original, and would likely not exist were it not for the creative urge to evoke the Italian-American one; it is a tribute, certainly, but is it remake?

We err on the side of yes. After all, these aren’t the first two films linked conceptually, but – at least at some point during production — not legally. Some examples: despite a changed title, changed character names, and different vampire lore, the vampire film Nosferatu was such a de facto attempt to film Dracula that Florence Stoker successfully sued the makers for plagiarism. Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was such a clear remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo that legal threats earned Toho studios a nice hunk of change and an official acknowledgment in the credits of the later film. We covered the many ways that the seriously-intended Zero Hour was aped for the parody film Airplane!, but the makers of the latter were new at the business and originally thought they could make their spoof without paying the owners of the Zero Hour copyright a dime – a misapprehension for which they soon learned they would have to make good. So it is for The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and The Good, The Bad, The Weird. The connection is so clear that it’s visible to the naked eye. We will call it a Remake and sort out the bodies later.

Each film involves a trio of dangerous men, living in dangerous, war-torn times, who find themselves embroiled in a quest to track down and claim a fabulous treasure. Each trio includes as its viewpoint character (“The Ugly” or “The Weird”), an unkempt, accident-prone clown of dubious morality, who kills at the drop of a hat but is so cruelly treated by fate and the other two that the audience cannot help forgiving him his sins. Both place him in uneasy partnership with a professional bounty hunter (“The Good”), the closest thing to an actual hero either of these movies offer, who kills just as easily and is frankly not much more virtuous, but from time to time betrays enough additional humanity that his various abuses of the clown figure emerge as increasingly funny. Both place these two in contention with a professional killer (“The Ugly”), who is charming, dapper, and in some ineffable way that could only make sense in this amoral universe more hissably evil than either of the others. Both films take pains to set the treasure hunt against the fate of nations; and both end with the all three, the last left alive at the site of the booty they have killed so many others to find, each betting everything on a three-way quick-draw duel fought on a circular playing field. They’re both brutal, funny, operatic in scale, driven at times by masterful use of soundtrack music, and more fun than any ten other movies, but the stories they tell are otherwise so very different that it’s possible to watch both films for the first time, one after the other, note the resonance, and not feel either plot spoiled.


The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966)

The Clint Eastwood character in this film is often referred to as “The Man With No Name,” as it’s the last and most elaborate of three films marketed in the U.S. under that blanket title. But he really isn’t. His name is Joe. He is also frequently called by the nickname Eli Wallach’s character gives him, Blondie, but his name is Joe. Moreover, internal evidence establishes that he is absolutely not the same man as Eastwood’s character in A Fistful Of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More; he just isn’t, even if moviegoers prefer to believe otherwise. One can only conclude that in the universe of these films, there was an entire ethnic strain of tall, blondish, squinty-eyed and cheroot-chomping men, otherwise unrelated, wandering around uttering catchphrases while shooting people; and that they were slightly more numerous than a similar strain of homicidal gunslingers who looked like the star of two films in this trilogy, Lee Van Cleef. (Eastwood, knowing a good thing when he saw it, later made a couple of subsequent westerns also featuring men with no name, High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider, and, again, moviegoers tend to treat these as de facto sequels, but the fact remains that internal evidence disputes this. The so-called Man With No Name is not just a different character every time he appears, but also not actually a man with no name. Sorry.

The film is set during a mysteriously far-west campaign of the Civil War, at a time when Eastwood’s bounty hunter Blondie has enlisted Wallach’s outlaw Tuco in a deadly con-game; the two travel from town to town, with Tuco as Blondie’s prisoner, so Blondie can collect the reward prior to using his marksmanship skills to scatter the townspeople and free Tuco from the noose, thus earning Tuco an even greater bounty on his head. That there about a dozen serious logical problems with this scenario, including the unlikelihood of Tuco agreeing to it in the first place (if he even knew that this was the deal he was making), or the physical reality that the era’s firearms were simply not even close to accurate enough to ensure that even a prodigy could make such shots consistently, is a small matter; the conceit establishes the film as a kind of myth, a fairy tale if you will, that is not to be taken seriously, thus preparing the audience to be slammed with more brutal realities later on. The relationship sours upon a spectacular, even murderous betrayal by Blondie (justifying a big laugh when he is immediately identified on-screen as “The Good”), making the two men bitter enemies who must subsequently team up when circumstances provide each with half the secret location to a hoard of stolen Confederate gold.

With its prequels, the film provides much of the foundation for Eastwood’s permanent state of super-stardom, but – we have to note – his performance here is little more than a brilliant, instant parody of itself. He squints and growls and projects menace and sometimes suffers and once in a great while smiles, but his character is by design an enigma, somebody whose humanity is hinted at, and revealed in small doses. We don’t have any problem understanding why it contributed to his fame, but it’s still the performance  of an star icon, and not a star actor. Even director Sergio Leone said this, in ungracious contemporary interviews, which for all we know may have contributed to the star and the director never working together again. Eastwood became much more interesting as an actor, and as a well-rounded artist, as he aged. For our money, the film’s true star performance belongs to Eli Wallach, whose Tuco is a profound comic creation: a man utterly devoid of positive qualities, who is nevertheless deeply ingratiating; a man who is not very bright, but nevertheless profoundly cunning; a man who is bullied and mistreated on a regular basis and yet as deadly as a viper; a man who shoots people dead and then compulsively crosses himself afterward, as if that makes it okay. He’s a man who from the evidence available on screen probably smells like the inside of a bowling shoe that somebody has stuffed with fish, whose greedy practicality so completely insulates him from most human concerns that  he looks downright puzzled when Blondie shows disgust at the ravages of war. It is an emotion alien to him.
This is not the same thing as saying that he’s not human at all, which is why it’s so great that we get an interlude at the mission run by Tuco’s estranged brother Father Pablo (Luigi Pistilli), the angel to Tuco’s fallen sinner, who has just returned from the funeral of their father and is not at all pleased to see the ne’er-do-well bandit he has not seen for ten years. The story stops completely dead to show us this confrontation, which suddenly invests the film with the first indication that it might have a soul; and it is riveting, especially given that Tuco really does seem to think that he would be greeted with loving arms, and Father Pablo really does clearly wish he’d shown his brother more than contempt, once the time for reconciliation is past. Once this scene is done we know exactly why Tuco is the way he is, and what follows is a splendid return to his version of normalcy, as he boasts that his brother loves him, and his ally-turned-enemy-turned-ally Blondie (who has witnessed the whole thing), refrains from contradicting him. The camera focuses on a tight close-up of Tuco’s face as he processes his hurt, focuses on the quest ahead, and then, improbably, smiles. He has a brother he loves, who has rejected him; and he has a man he hates, who has just shown him a moment of understanding. Here is a relationship he can comprehend. The gold is ahead. He is home.

We cannot stress this enough. The entire Father Pablo scene, and its aftermath, advances the actual narrative not at all. With the movie running as long as it does, it would be the first interlude a modern-day distributor would cut out, the first scene that would make a modern-day test audience squirm with discomfort. (And we can not stress this enough, either:  fuck test audiences.) But it serves the story. It lets us know exactly who this scuzzy little bandit is.  Eastwood’s Blondie, designed as an enigma, doesn’t get anything nearly as revelatory, unless you count the powerful moment late in the film where he makes a point of comforting a mortally-wounded Confederate (another that would not survive a modern-day cut). There are others, before and after, playing the brutal search for bounty against a sweeping backdrop of the horrors of war; a not-exactly historically-accurate backdrop, but nevertheless one that makes everything around it play on an epic level.

So the movie can be credited with having a soul, if not consistent logic. This viewer always cringes at the scene where Blondie and Tuco discuss the river up ahead, are captured by Union soldiers, and brought to a major military encampment that they somehow failed to detect even though it was literally only about five steps ahead of them. I also wonder how come Tuco’s escape from a train goes unnoticed by a flatcar covered with soldiers, in plain sight and in broad daylight; and how come, in the aftermath of a major battle, new recruits Blondie and Tuco are conveniently left behind in their sleep, when everybody else bugs out without waking them. (Gee. That was convenient.)

The logical questions are unimportant, though, next to the sheer narrative verve, Leone’s trademark huge and oddly beautiful unflattering closeups of sweaty and unshaven men, set design that accentuates the ugliness and the primitiveness of the outposts of civilization the three antagonists travel, and the series of reversals, hair’s-breadth escapes, and unlikely acts of gunplay that make this one of the best tall tales in the genre’s history. Leone was a master of the intensely slow scene that reeked of impending violence, that focused on the terrified faces of desperate men who knew that they were about to be killed; and such scenes are compelling when they arrive at the rate of one or two per film, but can sometimes run afoul of the law of diminishing returns when they come too many times per film. It is for precisely this reason that, while Leone’s followup, Once Upon A Time In The West, is likely a far better film, it still can’t match this one for sheer entertainment value.

And then there’s the music.

Oh, the music.

Ennio Morricone’s most famous movie score is a remarkably memorable and powerful series of orchestral pieces that somehow synergizes with all of the movie’s great set-pieces to create a kind of magic. I’m not even counting the main title music, which becomes Blondie’s theme and provides us with that ridiculously addictive refrain whenever Eastwood does something particularly cool: doody-oodie-ooh. Waa-waa-waa. That is admittedly great stuff, one of the best movie themes of all time, one so inherently terrific that it’s been covered in every style from heavy metal to ukelele:

No, I’m talking about such compositions as “The Ecstacy of Gold,” which here illustrates Tuco’s frantic race through a military cemetery for the one grave which contains a fortune.

It is one of the most purely movie moments the film possesses, an absolute wonderment, and the best thing I can say about it is that, as good as it is, it is followed by an interval that is even better: the three-way gun duel between the titular three.

It is hard to imagine how any remake, even an uncredited one, could possibly provide us with as compelling a mixture of music and image.

Except that 42 years later, the climax of the next film in our discussion came pretty damn close.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)

Kim Ji-Woon’s version of the tale is about half an hour shorter, and more dominated by action setpieces; though it retains a historical subtext, relevant to Korea, it nevertheless leaves out almost all (but not quite all) sense of historical tragedy and almost all (but not quite all) depth of character, satisfied to dazzle the eyes and set the heart to racing. It is a much shallower piece of work, as well a far more lighthearted one. It achieves what greatness it has by sheer audacity.
It is an “Eastern,” which is to say that it translates the western tropes of the original to an equivalent period in Korean history: here, the no-man’s-land of the Manchurian desert in the early 1930s, after Korea’s been occupied by the Japanese and the cast of desperate gunfighters has migrated to that lawless frontier, where they can live out of the outskirts of civilization. Dialogue late in the film evokes the heartbreak of having one’s country occupied, and the treasure that provides the narrative its McGuffin will turn out to be a very modern resource with important implications for the military future of the region, but these concerns are not central to the tone of the film, as they are in Ugly; they are invoked to provide context, and to provide yet another heavily-armed set of antagonists, but viewers will find little here to match Tuco’s confrontation with Father Pablo, or the heartbroken band playing ballads to cover the beating of prisoners of war. The movie simply doesn’t have much on its mind, beyond kinetic thrills.

But what thrills! Take this opening scene – the second after a brief expository scene we can safely ignore in order to make this point. I don’t know about you, but the second the hawk does what it does, I turned toward my seat companion and declared, “This movie has me at hello.” And so it did.

The three main characters are designed to provide the very same dynamic as the one established by the leads of the 1966 film. To wit: the viewpoint character is Yoon Tae-Go, an unkempt, unwashed, amiable but deadly outlaw, widely regarded an idiot but possessed of his own brand of cunning; a man who nothing ever seems to work out for (Yoon Tae-Go, “The Weird”; played by versatile actor Song Kang-Ho, who even possesses the approximate body type that Eli Wallach did in 1966).  (Kang-Ho has given terrific performances in other Korean movies worth checking out, which include the vampire movie Thirst and  the police procedural Memories of Murder;  you could honestly do worse than check out those two minor masterpieces, as well as this one, right now). To counter him, there’s  Park Do-Won (“The Good,” played by Jung Wo-Sung), an almost supernaturally gifted gunfighter and bounty hunter who for most of the film disavows all interest in the treasure; and Park Chang-Yi (“The Bad,” played by Lee Byung-Hun), a man who seems to kill for the sheer point of killing, as well as the acquisition of treasure. The chemistry between these three is very precisely modeled on the one between Wallach, Van Cleef and Eastwood, down to our affection for Tae-Go and the grim lack of concern for his well-being shown by the nominal “Good.” It is, again, not as deeply realized a relationship as that in the 1966 film, but it scarcely matters, as the movie’s true intent is providing us with one over-the-top action scene after another, and in fiendishly arranging for all the parties intent on intercepting Tae-Go on his way to the treasure, a number that encompasses among others desert tribesmen, hired killers and the freaking Japanese Army, to all converge at the same point, a raucous chase and battle across the Manchurian desert.

And here, all critical standards prove irrelevant. Never mind the fallacy of the shotgun with infinite ammunition or that of the army that cannot outshoot a lone man. This is simply one of the very coolest chase scenes in movie history. It is on a par with the climactic battle of Stagecoach, the climactic battle of The Road Warrior, and the truck chase in Raiders Of The Lost Ark; moreover, the melding of the score by Dalparan and Jang Yeong-Gyu and the highly unlikely but intensely cool sequence where Park Do-Won takes on vastly superior forces in a solo ride to the rescue, is pure action-movie orgasm. I dunno about you, but I could honestly watch this scene ten times in a row and still want to see more.

It all culminates in another three-way gunfight, which ends substantially differently, with all three leads apparently killing one another (though an unpersuasive coda insists, against all odds, that the two we want to survive not only did survive but also made it back to civilization and resumed their old habits). I don’t entirely buy it myself. But the movie has me at goodbye, as well.

 The Treasure, Found

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: a superior adventure film, filled with classic set-pieces, and passages of genuine feeling, marred by some woeful logical gaps; The Good, The Bad, The Weird: not quite the sum of its parts, let alone more than the sum of its parts, but a kinetic wonderment, the kind of movie action fans will want to see again and again.

And now, the wife narrows her flinty gaze, while a mournful chorus goes “Waa-waa” in the background….


Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (original title: Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo; 1966). Directed by Sergio Leone. Screenplay by Age and Scarpelli, Sergio Leone, and Luciano Vincenzoni. Starring Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef; also Luigi Pistilli. 177 minutes. ***

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (original title: Joheun nom nabbeun nom isanghan nom; 2008). Directed by Kim Ji-Woon. Screenplay by Kim Ji-Woon and Kim Ji-Suk. Starring Song Kang-Ho, Lee Byung-Hun, Jung Woo-Sung. 139 minutes. *1/2

As I may have said before, I’m no great fan of the western genre.  Not thrilled by cowboys and injuns, seeing horses abused and maimed doesn’t set my heart astir. Don’t care if the stagecoach got robbed.  All I want is a good story, told well.

Now, we are presented with a Western made in Italy and an Eastern made in Korea. 

Neither one is unwatchable or gives me the twitches, but neither one tells me a really good tale.

The Weird focuses on murdering thieves who happen to realize that they have a map that everyone wants. They is an intricate dance of who’s actually after who and a few good fights, but I had a tough time following the so-called plot.  If it hadn’t been for this column, I would have abandoned it way before the climactic chase.  Now is it a chase that can elevate this film into even an extra 1/2*? NO!  It was overblown and ridiculous.  One man can not do what this schmo was supposed to do.  I couldn’t suspend belief, because I had no feelings for the characters.  No suspension, no fun.

Now the “classic” Italian Western that saved a genre has a bit more going for it than the Korean remake, but not by all that much.

I could believe that the “good” is actually a vicious, money grubbing, murderous (when needed) thief.  But what makes him any better than the other two?  They are all low life scum trying to scratch out a dishonest living on the fringes of the Civil war.   And being a great shot with a rifle does not immediately translate to being an incredible pistol man too. 

In this classic film we have a few of my least favorite tropes.  If an extra is shot, he dies quickly.  If a star or plot point is shot, he not only dies slowly, but with enough clarity to pass on his secrets.  Oh and speaking of shooting…If a man on a roof or at a window takes a steady bead on our hero, he misses, but is shot  dead from a hastily drawn hip gun after a spin around and no sighting at all.  And most of all, the star must win and the evil must suffer.  So so so…..painful.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was one of those films that formed my dislike of westerns.  Not all of the films in the genre have generated my disdain. There are many fine tales and character studies set in the rugged west.  But this and its counterparts have permanently left a sour dusty film in my mouth.


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.