Damn you Conan O'Brien. Damn you for putting this 1979 double bill of Captain America movies on my radar. Damn you for giving me hope that they would be chock full of cheesy costumed silliness. Also, damn me for letting my expectations get out of hand.
If you're confused by my mock outrage at O'Brien, you must not watch his show too often. During the weeks leading up to the big summer release of Chris Evans' Captain America flick, O'Brien would present short clips from this pair of TV movies based on the First Avenger and try to pass them off as the hotly anticipated new Marvel venture. The glorious thing was that O'Brien didn't have to work very hard to find the funny because the clips practically sold themselves. I watched dumbstruck as Cap rode his motorcycle (yup, a star-spangled bike) through the hallways of a building in pursuit of a criminal, before stopping to patiently consult a map. I stared in disbelief as he interrogated a henchman who quickly choked to death from being held by the collar. By the time I saw that one of the movies featured Christopher Lee as a terrorist named Miguel (couldn't make this up), I was chomping at the bit.
As it turns out, I shouldn't have chomped so hard. Only half of this double feature works as intended. While the second film delivers on some of the silly heroics I was hoping for, the first one gets us off to a very rough start. As origin tales go, it's quite the stinker. It introduces us to Steve Rogers (Reb Brown) in civilian mode after his recent departure from the marines. Being the laid-back dude that he is, Steve uses his free time to drive down the coast and paint scenic vistas (!). When he hears of a friend in need of help, he rushes to his aid but not before dodging an elaborate murder attempt. Even though Steve manages to survive, his friend isn't so lucky. Now, Steve must discover who killed his pal and thwart a neutron bomb attack in the process.
Fortunately for Steve, he isn't alone in his fight. He can rely on his dad's pal Simon Mills (Len Birman), Simon's fetching associate Wendy Day (Heather Menzies) and of course good ol' Science. You see, Steve's dad was a scientist who had worked on a super-hormone that could help humans tap into their latent abilities that often went undiscovered. When Simon injects Steve with the FLAG serum (that's what it's called...stop laughing) in a moment of dire need, he unlocks a vast array of Steve's powers that will enable him to become Captain America. Aiding in this transformation are his spiffy blue duds, a tricked out motorcycle that comes shooting out of a van and of course a patriotic shield with extra boomerang action.
Anyone with a passing awareness of Captain America can tell that major liberties have been taken with his origins here. The film asks you to ignore the established history of the character and just swallow what is presented here. I was able to do so because I'm not a Captain America purist but I suspect many fans will be immediately turned off (and I don't blame them). Even after accepting it on its own terms, the film still manages to be a buzz kill by dragging its feet for much of the first hour. We have to wait till the 45 minute mark to get our first taste of super-serum fisticuffs between Steve and some goons. The sequence is anemic and brief but it gives you hope that the film will finally kick it into high gear. This hope is squashed as the film bubbles along with a lengthy montage of Steve riding his bike like it's the first motorcycle that any man has ridden...ever.
By the time Steve dons his Captain America suit, there are only 20 minutes left in the film. Now, you think, Captain America is going to teach those villains a lesson. And, you'd be wrong. After a quick stop to choke-interrogate a scientist, we're treated to another lengthy sequence of Captain America riding shotgun in a helicopter as he and Simon chase after a truck. Without giving anything away, the ensuing bit of action has Steve doing more harm than good until Mills shows up and finally saves the day. When all is said and done, you'll probably agree that the film should have been called Simon Mills based on how little Captain America actually does.
CAPTAIN AMERICA II: DEATH TOO SOON:
Fortunately, the second film is a vast improvement over the first and wastes no time getting down to business. Steve Rogers is back and he still has a thing for painting and bashing punks...in that order. After a quick detour to take down some muggers who have it in for the senior citizens in Steve's neighborhood, the film expands its scope to give us the genteel Christopher Lee as the stone-cold international terrorist Miguel. Miguel's dastardly plan includes spraying major cities with an aging chemical unless his demands are met. As the name suggests the chemical can age someone at a rate of 38 days per hour. This does not bode well for the people of Portland who are the first to be targeted by Miguel.
I have to give the sequel a great deal of credit for rectifying the wrongs of the first film. The premise is outlandish and the action goofy as hell but I was entertained from start to finish. Every aspect of this film seems to have been beamed in from an alternate universe where ludicrousness is the norm. Muscle-bound blonde men who like to paint portraits of old ladies and cats...check. A brawl against evil forklifts in a shipyard...of course. A villain who intimidates you by defacing your artwork...why not? A motorcycle that transforms into a glider only to transform back into a motorcycle in service of chasing down a station wagon driven by Dracula, I mean Miguel...(if you have to ask).
The sequel only falters when it lets heart get in the way of all the straight-faced insanity. Completely dropping the relationship that was developed between Steve and Ms. Day in the first film, here we have a small town single mom who needs Steve's help if she is to save her son and the other townsfolk from Miguel's cronies. Of course, a chaste relationship develops between Steve and the mom (but what about Ms. Day?...screw it, Simon Mills will swoop in and pick up the pieces). Unfortunately this relationship doesn't accomplish anything other than killing the film's momentum. Thankfully this doesn't happen too often and the climax returns to being all killer, no filler.
The performances are a bit scattershot as the cast has a hard time pinning down a consistent tone. The films require Reb Brown to be muscular, athletic and (very) earnest in the titular role. He does all these things while keeping Steve Rogers as one-dimensional as possible. Len Birman fares a bit better as Simon Mills, the man behind the Captain. Birman keeps a straight face throughout the films and that is a true accomplishment indeed. Even Christopher Lee has some fun chewing the scenery as the slippery Miguel. Don't get too attached to Heather Menzies in the role of Wendy Day because the character is recast with Connie Sellecca in the sequel. Sellecca turns Menzies' smile upside down and plays the character much more seriously.
It is rare that a sequel betters the first film in a series. It is rarer still when a sequel makes me wish that it existed in a vacuum where previous entries were null and void. Director Ivan Nagy's sequel definitely qualifies. He improves upon director Rod Holcomb's movie in every regard and gives half of this double feature a great deal of replay value.
The video is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio as would be expected from a pair of 1979 TV movies. It doesn't look like much (if any) restoration work was involved because the video appears pretty rough over all. The VHS grade image is a bit soft with slightly washed out colors. I also noticed specks, dirt and scratches on numerous occasions. Shadow detail isn't the greatest in dark scenes where it is hard to tell characters apart. The sequel also suffered from a few obtrusive video defects with jittery frames. While both films are watchable, the presentation is definitely lackluster.
The mono audio track doesn't carry too much oomph but it is fairly clear and free of obvious defects. Some of the dialogue did have a subtle echo effect but it wasn't too bothersome. There were no subtitles available.
I want to live in a world where Ivan Nagy's Captain America II: Death Too Soon doesn't have to be considered a sequel to the dud that is the earlier 1979 film dedicated to the character's origins. Ardent fans of the Marvel character need not apply because these films throw out much of his mythology in favor of gimmicks like patriotic motorcycles and action beats in the vein of The Six Million Dollar Man. With that said, if you can stand a little more cheese in your diet, then step right up. The sequel should be right up your alley as long as you can look past the missed opportunity that is the first film. With a split decision on the films, a rough visual presentation and no extras whatsoever, I would suggest that you Rent It.