Friday, November 25, 2005

Alien (1979)

Following the unexpected box office success of Star Wars in 1977, movies featuring aliens became all the rage. That trend brought us movies like Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but the idea of peaceful extraterrestrial life wasn't what Ridley Scott was aiming for when he directed Alien in 1979.

While most of the science fiction movies released in the wake of Star Wars featured a mixture of aliens that were both good and bad, Alien featured nothing but evil. There's no Wookies or Vulcans in sight, only a gigantic monster whose sole purpose is to kill, maim, and lay waste to everything around it. While Alien may have a nice glossy coating of science fiction on the exterior, inside is nothing short of a horror movie. It wasn't the first movie to have a seemingly unstoppable monster picking off each member of the cast one by one, but it has earned a reputation as being one of the best in the thirty years since it was first released.

Our tale of terror begins in the year 2122 aboard the Nostromo, a commercial towing vessel hauling an enormous ore refinery and twenty million tons of mineral ore behind it on its return course to Earth. Their journey home, however, is interrupted when the ship's computer intercepts what appears to be a foreign distress beacon originating from a tiny, uninhabitable planet named "LV-426." The computer awakens the seven-person crew from suspended animation to investigate the transmission. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), and executive officer Kane (John Hurt) venture to the surface of LV-426, quickly discovering the remnants of a derelict spacecraft hiding thousands of bizarre eggs within it.

Unfortunately for them (but fortunately for us, the viewer), the crew of the Nostromo made a very bad decision in examining the eggs. One of the eggs opens and a giant parasitic creature leaps out, cracking through Kane's protective helmet and latching itself onto his face.

Dallas and Lambert carry their unconscious crewmate back to the ship, where warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) refuses to let them in due to quarantine regulations. However, science officer Ash (Ian Holm) turns a deaf ear to Ripley's protests and opens a hatch to let them in. Kane is taken to the Nostromo's medical ward, where Ash deduces that removing the thing from his face poses too great a threat, especially since it's forced a proboscis down his throat. But eventually, the thing ends up falling off on its own, seemingly dead Kane wakes back up, and everything is hunky-dory. He's better! The movie's over, let's go home! Oh wait, it hasn't ended yet, after all. Oops.

Anyway, the seven crew members sit down for a meal, but the normal dinnertime chitchat is interrupted when Kane begins gagging. His choking develops into a full-blown seizure, but before anyone can help him a lizard-like creature bores its way through his chests and scurries away, leaving Kane's bloody corpse lying on the dinner table. The remaining crew begins a search for it through the Nostromo's dark, narrow corridors, but soon find themselves at the mercy of a beast growing larger and more terrifying with each victim.

While I'm probably more partial to its 1986 sequel Aliens, I still love Alien. As I said above, it isn't the first movie to feature an monstrous killer (in space or on land) nor is it the first sci-fi thriller, but it manages to seamlessly blend the genres into a "haunted house in space" that is quite scary once it gets rolling. Truth be told, Alien has more in common with Halloween than with the other zillion sci-fi movies released in the late '70s and early '80s. The movie even has the stereotypical "cat jumps out and scares the crap out of someone" horror movie moment. Alien even features a spin on the "Final Girl" idea, with Sigourney Weaver as a strong heroine. Most people were expecting Tom Skerritt to be the last person standing because not only did he have top billing, but because he was a man.

Despite only being Ridley Scott's second feature film (the first being The Duellists in 1977), his genius as a director is evident. Alien rooted Scott as a true visionary, and even after seeing its premiere twenty-five years ago, both Alien and his 1982 effort Blade Runner are ultimately mentioned by reviewers whenever Scott makes a new movie. Admittedly, the movie moves awfully slow for the first hour or so, but any conception that it's boring is quickly dashed by the shock and awe of the Alien's wrath. The slow, almost lethargic pace at the beginning is just the calm before the storm. Once we get to the dinner scene, everything starts going to Hell in a big way. Scott's direction is flawless here, and his talent can be seen in numerous moments throughout the movie.

Take, for example, a scene in which the character Brett (played by Harry Dean Stanton) is hunting for the crew's pet cat. Making stellar use of an uneasy environment, Scott makes sure the audience is as freaked out as possible. When the Alien attacks, we cut away to see the cat watching a horror we can only hear. He shows just enough to send the viewer's imagination into overdrive, and the imagination is always much more terrifying that we could be shown. Scott's use of frantic handheld camera movement is unsettling, not letting us really know what's happening and putting us into the universe of the characters we're watching.

His work is complimented by Jerry Goldsmith's musical score, which wonderfully captures the tension and the mystery of the movie. His use of a subtle heartbeat thumping during the slower, more atmospheric scenes is incredibly effective, and effectiveness goes a long way in movies like this. Goldsmith won a Grammy and a Golden Globe for his score, so it can't be all bad, can it?

Most movies live and die by the quality of their cast, and Alien has a cast that's up to task. The cast is comprised of actors who were relatively unknown at the time (though a number of them would go on to greater fame in the future), and while we don't really get to know their characters that well, the seven do have a very engaging chemistry. We can believe each of them are normal, frightened people, and perhaps the most realistic is Veronica Cartwright. Her character represents what how most of us would act if we were confronted with an extraterrestrial hellspawn that intends to kill us and use our bodies to propagate its species. Cartwright's character is a hysterical, blubbering wuss that's scared to the point of emotional exhaustion, and though some may find her annoying, her character is us.

Each member of the cast is entertaining in their own right, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley. Weaver would go on to greater success with movies like Ghostbusters, Gorillas in the Mist, and Aliens, but the original Alien film is her breakout role and she shines. A lesser actress wouldn't have the strength Weaver conveys, and it is her performance that makes her character such a lasting icon in sci-fi. Even today, in the rare occasion where we have a female hero in an action movie, she commonly finds herself being weighed against Ripley. While she essentially is the typical Final Girl here and didn't truly cement her reputation until the release of Aliens seven years later, Ripley is in rare company with Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor from The Terminator as the patron saints of heroines in action movies.

However, Alien's true stars not the seven human actors, but the production design of Michael Seymour and the Oscar-winning creature design of H.R. Giger. Seymour's work is an absolutely perfect parallel for what the movie is depicting, and Seymour presents us with a maze of dark, tight passages that amp up the claustrophobia and tension.

Assisting this is Giger, who has crafted one of the ugliest, most horrific sci-fi villains ever. From its mouth of razor-sharp teeth to the slimy reptilian body, few movie monsters can equal the fright the Alien instigates. While the look of the Alien would improve in the sequels thanks to advancements in special effects, Giger's design is still frightening. His work serves as a reminder that before filmmakers resorted to CGI, monsters could be just as scary using practical effects.

And a quick thought about the movie: Did anybody else notice the Purina logo in certain places? Are we to assume that 100 years from now, a dog food company can specialize in interstellar travel? With all the recent advances in technology, I don't doubt it. But that does make me wonder if Purina would have any ties with the malfeasant Weyland-Yutani corporation depicted in the Alien franchise.

Despite twenty-five years having passed since it was first released, Alien has withstood the test of time as one of the true classics of both horror and science fiction. One could even argue that Alien was as influential as Star Wars, demonstrating that you don't have to set your movie a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away to make a good sci-fi movie. It may have not been the first movie of its kind, but it is without a doubt one of the best. Alien gets four stars and a hearty recommendation, so go check it out already.

Final Rating: ****

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Predator (1987)

In the aftermath of his breakthrough appearance as the titular character in 1982's Conan the Barbarian, Arnold Schwarzenegger became a mega-star in the world of big-budget Hollywood action movies. Though I doubt you'll ever see him winning an Oscar, he's amassed a résumé of some of the biggest action movies ever made. With movies like the The Terminator, The Running Man, and Commando, Schwarzenegger had become perhaps the most recognizable action star ever by the late '80s.

By the time 1987 rolled around, Arnold found himself cast in a movie that, like The Terminator, would serve as a benchmark in both the action and science fiction genres. Helmed by Die Hard director John McTiernan, Predator has the same kind of recipe for action and sci-fi that Alien had for sci-fi and horror. I mean, take a look at what it has: Arnold Schwarzenegger, explosions, gunfire, angry commandos (which I guess ties into the gunfire), a jungle, and a seven-foot-tall intergalactic killing machine. With a blueprint like that, I'm not surprised that its earned a reputation as one of the premier "Guy Movies" of the '80s. Now let's see what all the hubbub is about, shall we?

Our story centers around Major Dutch Shaeffer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his team of commandos, comprised of stoic Mac (Bill Duke), grizzled Native American Billy (Sonny Landham), tobacco-chewing cowboy Blain (Jesse Ventura), foul-mouthed comedian Hawkins (Shane Black), and irritable translator Poncho (Richard Chaves). The CIA has drafted Dutch and his team to rescue a group of stranded CIA airmen being held captive by terrorists in a Central American jungle, with CIA operative Major Dillon (Carl Weathers) tagging along. The team arrive in the jungle but by the time they find the terrorist base camp, it's too late. The airmen have met a horrible demise, having been killed, skinned, and strung up from trees. Of course, you know this means war.

The commandos retaliate in the grandest of fashions: Lots of gunfire, lots of explosions, corny one-liners from Arnold, the whole shebang. Of course, the whole terrorist thing proves to be a gigantic red herring. As the commandos wait for their helicopter pickup, a chameleon-like entity we know as the Predator (Kevin Peter Hall) begins to hunt down and kill them one by one. The chameleon violently thins out the ranks until the only ones left alive are Dutch and a girl from the camp, Anna (Elpidia Carrillo). Soon thereafter we learn the true nature of their adversary: the Predator is an intergalactic big game hunter that's named humans as its big game of choice.

In his review for the movie, Roger Ebert labeled Predator an amalgamation of Alien and a Rambo movie, and I find that description to be somewhat accurate. That's not a bad thing, though. Predator is one rockin' movie, and everything good you've heard about it is probably true. In the same vein as the Alien quartet and Terminator trilogy, Predator is a sci-fi movie that action fans love, and it's an action movie that sci-fi fans love. Besides, how many movies can boast that it had three gubernatorial candidates in it? "But wait," you're probably asking, "weren't there just two?" Everyone knows that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura have occupied the governor's office in California and Minnesota, but what isn't as well known is that Sonny Landham was a candidate in the 2003 race to elect the governor of Kentucky before eventually dropping out. (Fun fact: Schwarzenegger and Ventura were both the thirty-eighth governors of their respective states.)

Since I don't really have any complaints about the movie, let's get to the good stuff. First off, I'm gonna hit the acting. Schwarzenegger's role here further solidified his reputation as one of action's biggest stars and he shines brightly here, but he's still playing the same tough-as-nails military guy that he plays in most of his movies. I bet you could swap the Arnold from Predator with the Arnold from Commando, and you probably couldn't tell any difference. But he's rockin' here, so no nay-saying from me. I also really enjoyed Jesse Ventura as Blain, who provided some good campy fun stuff. I bet his Navy SEAL experience helped him with the role, too. Also noteworthy were Carl Weathers and Bill Duke, both of whom I thought did a great job.

John McTiernan's direction is excellent, as well. The jungle is a creative setting to begin with, and McTiernan, who would go on to greater fame as the director of Die Hard, utilizes it for many great scenes (with a little assistance from scriptwriters Jim and John Thomas and cinematographer Donald McAlpine). While Die Hard would not be released until 1988, his talent as an action movie director is evidenced here. On the music side of things, Alan Silvestri's score is absolutely tremendous. The bongo drums blended with the orchestra are really cool, what with the jungle setting and all, and parts of the score gave a strong military feel to go with the commando team.

Stan Winston's effects are also superb, right up there with his work on the Terminator movies. The Predator's facial features are awesome, and that clicking growl is intimidating as all hell. The makeup was helped by the actor wearing it, Kevin Peter Hall. He's an frightening figure, and the fact that he's 7'2" helps. And to think, the Predator was almost played by Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Predator is one of those movies that any casual action/sci-fi fan should see at least once, if they haven't already. Granted, there's not much in the way of plot or character development, but come on. The movie is almost non-stop manliness for an hour and forty-seven minutes, and with that kind of groundwork, I'm not surprised that the plot is threadbare. But no matter, because the movie still manages to be unequivocally astounding. As one of the best action movies of all time and a fine sci-fi movie as well, Predator gets the full five stars and a hearty Sutton At The Movies seal of approval.

Final Rating: *****

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Devil's Rejects (2005)

Movies oftentimes straddle the line between good taste and moral reprehensibility. Others obliterate that line, unapologetically showing us how horrific the human imagination can be. If you're a fan of low-budget horror movies from the 1970s, you saw a lot of movies like that. Ultra-violent movies like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes are oft-cited benchmarks in exploitative grindhouse cinema, but today serve only as relics of a bygone era of filmmaking that was wiped out by a combination of political correctness, the desire to make more money, and a general drop in interest by moviegoers.

But the style was far from forgotten, as proved when heavy metal star and horror movie enthusiast Rob Zombie ventured into filmmaking with his Texas Chainsaw Massacre homage House of 1000 Corpses. Though critical reaction was mixed and the box office returns were modest at best, that didn't stop Zombie from making a sequel titled The Devil's Rejects. Rather than return to the same style of film, Zombie instead takes us in a new direction for a movie that can be seen as a wild combination of Natural Born Killers and Bonnie and Clyde, with dashes of Taxi Driver and Thelma and Louise for flavor. Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper gave it two thumbs up, but what exactly do I think?

Like any good sequel, the movie begins somewhere in the neighborhood of six months after the events of House of 1000 Corpses. Via an opening narration, we learn that the murderous Firefly clan has been dubbed "the Devil's Rejects" by the press, and are wanted in connection with seventy-five murders. We waste no time getting into the action after the monologue, as the dilapidated farmhouse that the Devil's Rejects call home has been surrounded by a heavily-armed squadron of police officers led by pragmatic Sheriff John Wydell (William Forsythe).

Obsessed with bringing down the Devil's Rejects because they murdered his brother in House of 1000 Corpses, Sheriff Wydell announces to his deputy that they are about to dole out an "Alabama ass-whoopin'" of epic scope. The police launch their attack on the house, and by the time it's all said and done, one is missing in action, one is killed, and matriarch Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook) is taken into police custody. But never fear, fans of violence and lovers of gore, because family alpha male Otis (Bill Moseley) and his slutty half-sister Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) have escaped through a hidden tunnel beneath the house.

The duo soon arrive at a seedy motel in the middle of nowhere, where they cross paths with a country band called "Banjo & Sullivan." And as you can probably surmise, the members of Banjo & Sullivan won't be appearing in House of 1000 Corpses 3, as they soon find themselves both sexually and mentally assaulted before they're gruesomely dispatched. Baby's father, the repellent clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), arrives shortly thereafter, and the terrible trio hit the road.

They head straight for "Charlie's Frontier Fun Town," an Old West-themed whorehouse owned and operated by Spaulding's "brother from another mother," Charlie Altamont (Ken Foree). The Old West theme is fitting, as the area seems like a ghost town, populated only by Charlie, his assistant Clevon (Michael Berryman), a bouncer, and only two prostitutes. While the Devil's Rejects party in their safe house, Sheriff Wydell has hired ruthless bounty hunters Rondo (Danny Trejo) and Billy Ray Snapper ("Diamond" Dallas Page) to help hunt down his prey. The "Unholy Two," as they're called, succeed, and we segue into the film's finale. Sheriff Wydell captures the Devil's Rejects, leading us down a path of violence that culminates in a bloody final confrontation at the house of a thousand corpses.

The Devil's Rejects is an unabashed exorcise in viciousness and brutality. The movie isn't meant to be "entertaining" or "enjoyable," it's meant to be shocking and intense. If that was truly its intention, I believe it succeeds. The Devil's Rejects may be considered a sequel to House of 1000 Corpses, but it's not so much a continuance of a story as it is a standalone movie with a lot of the same characters. There are only a few fleeting references to House of 1000 Corpses, and The Devil's Rejects has much more in common with Natural Born Killers than its predecessor.

And just like Natural Born Killers, the movie's sympathies lie with the killers, almost leading the viewer to want to cheer for them. While they're definitely a charismatic trio, cheering for them is in essence the same as cheering for the Manson Family. Just because the story is about them doesn't make them the heroes. It doesn't even make them the antiheroes. All three are depraved, sadistic, brutal murderers, and with the exception of Baby being a smoking hot lady-type person, they really don't have any redeemable qualities.

But no matter, because the three characters are disgusting yet compelling, repulsive yet intriguing. It's like a car wreck; no matter how nasty it is, you can't help but stare in amazement. There are a handful of scenes where the movie attempts to cast a more humane light on our three murderers, almost as if we the viewer are wanted to believe that the killers wouldn't be so bad if they weren't completely insane. While I understand the scenes are included in the movie to add a little levity to the movie and give its viewers a break, it seems like we are supposed to root for either the lovable psychos or the unlikable cop that wants to exact justice by lowering himself to the level of the criminals he's chasing.

Writer/director Rob Zombie had all the room in the world to improve after making his directing debut with House of 1000 Corpses, and I think he has. While I liked his work on House of 1000 Corpses, I'll be the first to admit that his inexperience as a movie director was obvious. It's my belief that Zombie began coming into his own as a director with The Devil's Rejects. I think he could end up becoming the Quentin Tarantino of the horror genre over time. He's already taken a cue from Tarantino and has cast numerous forgotten B-list actors from the '70s. There's Ken Foree from Dawn of the Dead, Michael Berryman from The Hills Have Eyes, Geoffrey Lewis from High Plains Drifter and Priscilla Barnes from Three's Company as members of Banjo & Sullivan, and cameos from porn star Ginger Lynn Allen and P.J. Soles of Halloween and Carrie fame. And oddly enough, one of Charlie's prostitutes is played by E.G. Daily, who you may recognize as either voice talent on Nickelodeon's Rugrats and Powerpuff Girls or as Dottie from Pee Wee's Big Adventure.

If a movie is a peek into the mind of its creator, then Zombie's brain has been saturated by watching Sam Peckinpah movies and late-night Creature Features. The Devil's Rejects has a very kinetic energy, and if the movie can be given any compliment, it would be that it's never boring. The majority of the movie is filmed with a handheld camera, and when combined with the grainy look of many scenes, it evokes memories of the '70s horror movies that Zombie is very obviously enthralled with. Zombie makes use of clever scene transitions, freeze framing, and odd camera angles to create a movie that gives it a stylistic flair not seen nowadays. Say what you will about Rob Zombie, but his movies definitely look creative.

Going back to my Tarantino remark earlier, Zombie's script features dialogue that seems like it came from the Quentin Tarantino School of Screenwriting. Zombie's dialogue may not be as witty as Tarantino's, but it manages to be as frenetic and fast-paced as anything Tarantino has written. He has no qualms over making his audience as uncomfortable as possible, reveling in the sadistic glee of its main characters. What makes his characters work is that each one earnestly believes that what they are doing is justified. From the three killers who torture and mutilate innocent victims for their own sick pleasure, to the redneck sheriff who hunts down the guilty like animals in the name of vigilante justice.

However, Zombie also throws in humor at odd times so we can catch our breath. I point to a throwaway scene where an obnoxious film critic (played by Robert Trebor) rambles on and on with useless Marx Brothers trivia before Sheriff Wydell has him thrown out of the building for daring to insinuate that Elvis Presley was a glory hog because he died three days before Groucho. The scene is utterly hilarious, simply because it comes from nowhere and leads to nowhere.

Like House of 1000 Corpses, the movie boasts numerous quotable lines, but unlike House of 1000 Corpses, there is nary a reference to Doctor Satan. Zombie said in an interview that using Doctor Satan in The Devil's Rejects would be the same as putting Chewbacca in Bonnie and Clyde, and I'm inclined to agree. As I said above, the references to House of 1000 Corpses are few and far between, and Doctor Satan would have just muddled things up. He really wouldn't have fit within the context of the movie, so the Doctor Satan scenes being left on the cutting room floor makes sense. It would have been neat to see Doctor Satan in the movie, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it.

And now to the acting. Once again, Sid Haig is absolutely hilarious as Captain Spaulding, proving why many fans of House of 1000 Corpses said he was their favorite character. He's still absolutely filthy and repellent, but still has a bizarre charm about him. I also thought Bill Moseley was great, coming off with that creepy Charles Manson vibe and sporting that Grizzly Adams beard like a champ. Sheri Moon Zombie did fine as Baby, but the change in character from bubbly yet murderous kook in House of 1000 Corpses to bloodthirsty queen bitch in The Devil's Rejects threw me off. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, I just didn't see it coming. Either way, Mrs. Zombie is great, and hopefully she'll start appearing in movies not directed by her husband. William Forsythe is also awesome, and though his character is seemingly portrayed as unlikable, Forsythe plays the role with an intensity needed to make him believable. If someone decides to make a movie about The Punisher as a middle-aged man, they should give William Forsythe a call.

Ken Foree and Michael Berryman were a lot of fun, and Leslie Easterbrook did an admirable job replacing Karen Black as Mother Firefly. She may have been a wee bit over the top in her performance, but I still found it enjoyable. The late Matthew McGrory (who sadly passed away shortly after the release of the movie) reprised his role as Tiny, which is a fitting name because that's how much screen time he got. He's not on screen very long at all, and he might as well not have even been in it at all. It seems like the only reason he was there was to serve as some kind of deus ex machina at the end of the movie. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Danny Trejo and pro wrestler "Diamond" Dallas Page as the Unholy Two. Despite their screen time being rather modest, I really liked them a lot, and would love to see a spin-off starring them.

Moving on, the movie boasts one of the most entertaining soundtracks I've every heard. From rockers like Three Dog Night, Steely Dan, and the Allman Brothers to blues singers Otis Rush and Muddy Waters and country musicians like Buck Owens, the movie uses an arrangement of songs that is perhaps more engaging than the movie itself. And I dare you to tell me that the use of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" at the end doesn't make the final scene that much better. We also get fantastic music from composer Tyler Bates, who has assembled a score that combines pounding industrial music with chilling ambient noises.

If I may, I'd like to borrow a quote from the review written by Roger Ebert: "I don't want to get any e-mail messages from readers complaining that I gave the movie [a good review], and so they went to it expecting to have a good time, and it was the sickest and most disgusting movie they've ever seen. My review has accurately described the movie and explained why some of you might appreciate it and most of you will not, and if you decide to go, please don't claim you were uninformed." I don't know if I accurately described the movie itself, but I know that I've accurately described how I feel about it.

I'll gladly give The Devil's Rejects four stars, but that comes with a warning. The movie's content isn't for everyone. The movie is horrific, demented, obscene, and sadistic, and many may not be able to stomach it, but it is still a well-made movie no matter how you slice it. It's evident that Rob Zombie wants to bring back the exploitative cinema he loved in his youth, and if he continues to make films like The Devil's Rejects, I think he may be able to bring them back on a regular basis.

Final Rating: ****

Sunday, November 6, 2005

Captain America (1990)

In the early days of World War II, one of the most popular varieties of comic book superheroes were the patriotic ones that proudly flew the American flag. Before the United States even entered the war, comic book publishers were giving their readers characters ranging from The Shield and Captain Freedom to Uncle Sam himself. But perhaps the most lasting of these characters is none other than Captain America. The creation of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, he made his first appearance in 1941, knocking out Adolf Hitler on the cover of Captain America Comics #1. He defended the United States against Nazi and Japanese troops during World War II, but his popularity waned once the war ended. He faded into obscurity, outside of a short-lived reappearance in 1953 to fight the red menace of Communism.

Captain America remained in limbo until 1964, when Marvel Comics resurrected him to be a member of their superhero all-star team, "The Avengers." He's been around ever since, yet despite his long tenure in the comic world, he's never truly achieved the same kind of mainstream recognition as Batman or Superman. Then again, Captain America hasn't really seen much success in other non-comic forms of media anyway.

Believe it or not, there was a time when movies based on Marvel properties were average at best (and horrendous at worst). But prior to movies like Blade, X-Men, and Spider-Man, Marvel was tied to less-than-stellar adaptations in the early '90s, and one of them was based on Captain America. It was intended for a theatrical release in America in 1990, but it was instead held back, seeing European releases before being shuffled off straight to American video store shelves in 1992. Maybe the distributors realized just how awful this movie was and tried to keep people from seeing it for as long as possible.

The movie opens in Italy circa 1937, where a young child prodigy named Tadzio de Santis (Massimillo Massimi) is held captive by Nazi soldiers and forced to watch them murder his family. The Nazis have developed a process to create super-soldiers, and their best choice is a psychologically fractured little boy that can play piano like a champ. I guess that makes sense to someone. One of the process's developers, Dr. Maria Vaselli (Carla Cassola) objects to using a child as their test subject, and flees to the United States.

The expatriated Nazi scientist sells her super-soldier secrets to the Army, who have developed their own version of the process (named "Project Rebirth") after seven years of work. Project Rebirth's first lucky volunteer is Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger), a gangly all-American young man stricken with polio. The experiment is a success, but Dr. Vaselli is shot and killed immediately thereafter by a Nazi spy. Steve gets shot too, but he isn't gonna stand for that kind of crap, so he electrocutes the spy on some lab equipment.

Two days pass, and the fully healed Steve has adopted the name "Captain America," donning a fireproof costume and wielding an indestructible shield that doubles as a weapon. He's dropped into a Nazi camp just in time to stop them from launching a missile pointed at an unknown target in the United States. He fights his way into the missile command center, where he is immediately confronted by The Red Skull (Scott Paulin), the now-adult subject of Dr. Vaselli's previous experiment with the Nazis. I have no idea why he would pledge loyalty to the Nazis after he watched them murder his family, but hey, I don't write the movies. I just review them.

Getting back on track, Red Skull is a physical and intellectual equal to Captain America, only his face is incredibly deformed (thus earning him his name). The two fight, but Captain America finds himself incapacitated and strapped to the Nazi missile. The Red Skull reveals that the missile is pointed at the White House, so Captain America decides that if he's going down, he's taking the Red Skull with him. He grabs Red Skull by the arm just as the missile begins to take off, so what does the crimson-faced villain do? He doesn't pull his arm away, nor does he shoot Cap to make him let go. Instead, he chooses to cut off his own hand. Brilliant idea, Red. The missile is launched with Captain America still hitching a ride, but as it approaches its target destination of Washington, he manages to throw it off course and sends it flying into the Alaskan tundra. Man, that must have been one hell of a rocket if it made it all the way from Germany to Alaska. Anyway, Captain America ends up getting frozen in suspended animation, and he'll be staying there for quite a while.

Our hero thaws out fifty years later, and a lot has changed since 1944. The Red Skull has gone back to living under his real name, had facial reconstructive surgery (for the most part, anyway), and controls a vast criminal empire responsible for murdering Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers. Already bummed due to a combination of some wicked culture shock and the belief that he failed his country, things don't get much better for ol' Steve Rogers when he discovers that his old girlfriend Bernice (Kim Gillingham) has gotten old and has a family of her own. But to his amazement, he sees the Bernice he knew in her lookalike daughter Sharon (also played by Kim Gillingham). These changes in the world leads him to put away his mask and shield and live life as a simple civilian. But once he learns that the Red Skull has kidnapped the President (Ronny Cox) and killed Bernice while he was at it, Steve must once again adopt his Captain America persona to save the day.

Well... what do I say? Though it probably isn't as bad as its reputation lets on, it's still far from good. The movie does manage to have a very weird charm, but charm does not a good movie make. The directing is uninspired, the writing is lame, and the acting is stiff and wooden. I've heard that director Albert Pyun and screenwriter Stephen Tolkin have done interviews professing a total lack of interest in Captain America, and it shows. The movie's protagonist spends maybe twenty minutes of the movie actually wearing the Captain America costume, which is a total rip-off if you ask me.

I can understand making a mediocre movie due to budget restraints or constant studio interference, but part of me believes that Pyun and Tolkin made a crappy movie just because they didn't respect the source material. And when your tale of a patriotic super-soldier that gets frozen before his triumphant return fifty years later is getting out-shined by direct-to-video obscurities like Matthew Blackheart: Monster Smasher, you're obviously not doing a very good job. And is it just me, or does that costume just look like a star-spangled body condom? People think the costumes in Joel Schumacher's two Batman movies were ugly, but the one worn by Captain America here has them beat. Don't get me started on the fake ears on the sides of the mask, either.

Let's hit the cast really quick, shall we? The son of reclusive author J.D. Salinger, lead actor Matt Salinger has all the appeal of a dirty mop, showing none of the charm or determination that makes his comic book counterpart so engaging. Scott Paulin is also flat and unaffecting as Red Skull, even through pounds of latex makeup. I'd have forgiven him if he'd played Red Skull like a villain on the old Batman TV show, because that would have at least made it fun. But no, we don't get that.

Kim Gillingham is forgettable, and both Ned Beatty (who has a small role as a reporter) and Ronny Cox are just there. I can't blame the cast, though. They need work just like any other actor, and if the director can't motivate them into a good performance, it isn't their fault. Like I've been saying, the only awards Pyun's direction would have won were a couple of Razzies, but then again, we're talking about a guy who has movies like Alien From L.A. and Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor on his résumé.

Where the movie's real problems lie are in Tolkin's script. You can use words like "inane" or "banal" to describe the script, and you'd be totally right. I know it's probably not that big of a deal in the long run, but why change Red Skull from a German Nazi to an fascist Italian mob boss? It's not like it was an itty-bitty detail like the white Kingpin being played by a black man in Daredevil or the brunette Daisy Duke being played by a blonde in the Dukes of Hazzard movie. He's a Nazi terror in the comics, and that's what he should be in the movie. And Red Skull is given a pathetic childhood trauma origin story, when we really shouldn't be feeling sympathy for the evil monster.

And the change in Red Skull's home country isn't the only stupid thing in the movie. Once Dr. Vaselli is killed, it is revealed that Captain America is one of a kind because she kept all the info on her super-soldier serum in her head. Couldn't they think of something a little more believable? They could have said the serum was dependant on a rare blood type or some rare gem/element, or there was a fire that destroyed all her notes, or something. But no, she didn't even bother writing it down. And then she goes and puts some important information like Red Skull's real name and the location of his hideout in her diary, of all places. Tolken may not have liked Captain America, but at least he could have tried to write a script that was, y'know, good. If it were me, I'd have set the whole movie during World War II, and had them frozen at the end to set up Captain America 2. But again, that's just me.

Those behind the movie's production really hit the nail on the thumb with their depiction of Captain America. I've definitely seen worse comic book adaptations, but I've definitely seen a lot more that were better. A newer version with a bigger budget (and hopefully, a good cast and a competent director and writer) is in the works at the time of this review, and hopefully it'll turn out a lot better than this steaming turd. Captain America wasn't totally awful, but it didn't make me want to watch it more than once. I'll give the movie one and a half stars, and you shouldn't feel bad if you miss it.

Final Rating: