Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty/Death Too Soon (DVD)

I'm somewhat baffled as to why 101 Films has decided to release these two Captain America films at this point, a couple of years too late to cash in on the Joe Johnston reboot and a couple of years too early to cash in on that sequel, which has just started filming. It's even a year too late to cash in on The Avengers.

Still, untimely as this release may be, it ably lives up to the time-honoured tradition of releasing a similarly packaged, deeply shitty long-forgotten TV movie version of something which has recently been remade as a high-budget Hollywood blockbuster in the desperate hope that some unwitting Sainsburys shoppers will be duped into buying it. This cynical marketing technique actually sometimes leads to some real gems being unearthed but in this case... maybe not.

When Johnston's film was released, the inevitable DVD cash in was the crappy but enjoyable 1990 version, starring JD Salinger's son in the title role with support in the form of some kind of Deliverance reunion featuring Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty. What we have here is a pair of 1979 TV movies featuring the never-was talent that is Brown at the apex of his career in the title role.

It's a complete reinvention of the character. Presumably due to budgetary restraints. I understand that setting a TV movie in the 40's might have been a tall order. Their solution, however to relocate the action entirely to some deserted roads in California and reinvent Steve Rogers as a beach bum, beefcake artist doesn't make a lot of sense.

The first film is subtitled Sentinel of Liberty and is almost commendable in the contempt it displays for its presumably young audience. Eight minutes of story are dragged out over a punishing 110 minutes of screen time. The bad guy is some bloke in a suit who's trying to steal a neutron bomb or something. It's not until the one-hour mark that Captain America himself appears in any form and, when he does, that form could best be described as "shitty Evel Knievel" he basically just dirtbikes through some desert at a debatably high speed, which isn't exactly a display of super powers so much as... just riding a bike, really. Amongst the bikes special features are "Jet Assist" which makes the bike go not very noticeably faster. It also, bafflingly has a "silence" button which makes it go... quieter. That's an exciting reveal.

It'd probably be harmless kitschy fun if it clocked in at maybe 45 minutes but 100 minutes is a struggle. Especially since it's a mind-numbing three quarters of an hour until there is even the barest suggestion of action and when that appears it really, genuinely is just the barest suggestion involving Steve pushing some meat – yes, meat – in the general direction of the bad guys and fading immediately into a shot of them hanging from meathooks having been bested.

It's another half an hour before the iconic costume appears. Actually, the iconic costume fails to appear but a kind of Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards ski-suited/crash-helmeted riff on it finally emerges towards the end. At this point, some non-bike-based action occurs. A bit of running about and some jumping up really high (which is not at all obvious as reversed footage of someone jumping down from a high place) and then there's a bit more stuff on the dirtbike and then it ends. Which I was thankful for.

The sequel Death Too Soon is a great improvement, it elevates the series from shitty, unwatchable TV movie from the 70s into deliciously kitschy, quite watchable TV movie from the 70s. There's a few reasons for this – the direction by Ivan Nagy being one of them. Fresh from an episode of ChiPs and two episodes of Starsky and Hutch, is kinetic and far more comic bookish. Nagy would go on to deliver on this early promise with a string of pornos. You're probably familiar with "Izzy Sleeze's Casting Couch Cuties" or "Super Fine Pure Gold". No? Maybe I misjudged you.

Anyway, Death Too Soon is sillier and slicker and far more fun. The fun coming mainly from the baddie. Christopher Lee! At the height of his 1970s that's-quite-the-tax-bill-I'll-do-ANYTHING fervour. He rocks the super villain thing well (although nowhere near as well as his brilliant, brilliant performance in the little known Return of Captain Invincible) and that combined with a vastly improved Captain America costume gives us eighty-odd minutes of enjoyable twaddle which sits comfortably alongside The Greatest American Hero or Shazam. My favourite scene is the one where two bullies try to intimidate Steve Rogers while he's innocently painting a portrait of his cat in a park. They nick his paintbrush and paint spectacles on the painting. I quite liked that.

It should be said that '79 was the same year that Kenneth Johnson brought The Incredible Hulk to TV screens in one of the most endurably fantastic TV pilot films, demonstrating even before the age of Kevin Feige that Marvel source material could be converted into intelligent, exciting film with the scope to give some great actors some meaty roles and really explore some smart themes and story matter. So, I'm not inclined to write this stuff off as 'of its time.'

It's interesting, it's great that this has surfaced although I rather wish the distributors had revelled in the historical relevance of the films and acknowledge them for what they are rather than underhandedly market them to an ignorant audience in modern styled packaging. These are not classics. They're not really very good. But they're a curiosity and there are worse ways to kill a weekend post-lunch sofa slump.


Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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