An Australian movie about an American superhero directed by a French-born painter. What could go wrong?
Country: Australia | Runtime: 90mins | Director: Phillipe Mora
Starring: Alan Arkin, Christopher Lee, Kate Fitzpatrick, Bill Hunter, Michael Pate
SPOILT PLOT: It's the 1950s and Captain Invincible (Arkin) is the great American hero. After being screwed over by a HUAC-like enquiry which finds fault in his rescue of a boatload of Communists, he reluctantly retires from superhero duties. 30 years later the villainous Mr Midnight (Lee) steals a deadly super-weapon. Captain Invincible is now a drunk living rough in Australia but, desperate for help, the US president persuades him to return to action. Aided by Australian policewoman Patty Patria (Fitzpatrick), for some reason, Invincible returns to the US, confronts Midnight and saves the world.
"Australia? That's where I've been all these years? I knew everything looked different but I thought it was the booze.”
Everybody knows bad comedies are seldom good. Those that are will usually be genuinely funny, only failing on the technical levels that nitpickers like me hold dear, but that's a rare feat perhaps best exemplified in 1988's Traxx, which is both unironically hilarious and horribly badly made. The Return of Captain Invincible gets it the wrong way round, and the result is miserable. It's a shame because it nearly isn't. Alan Arkin is well suited to playing a disillusioned, drunken superhero, Christopher Lee can do villains and the broad concept has great potential. Unfortunately, the supporting cast are dire and the script fatally underwritten, which might be a surprise considering the scribe was Steven E. de Souza, the man who wrote Die Hard. But a screenplay co-written by Gabriel Garcia Marques and God could be ballsed up by the director. So when you consider de Souza also wrote Hudson Hawk and the director made Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, we should be glad it at least makes sense.
Singing can break out at any moment
I interviewed director Philippe Mora and he is hugely intelligent, witty and creative. Born in France to artist parents but subsequently raised in Australia, he's a legitimate creative powerhouse in other mediums. He's also thoroughly amused by public reaction to his work in this one. He doesn't occupy the same plane as the rest of us, he knows his movies only have to answer to posterity and believes they will have their day. He may be right... but that day hasn't come yet for Captain Invincible.
The problem of the cast, and several others beside, stems from the movie's Australian heritage. Arkin and Lee are the only non-Antipodeans among the cast, with de Souza the only one among the primary crew, and that gives this (supposedly) most American of movies a distinctly Australian personality. Not a problem for a Brian Trenchard-Smith exploitation movie (like the excellent Dead End Drive-In, which was written by Captain Invincible co-scribe Peter Smalley), but it's not an ideal match for a Yankee superhero caper crossed with a Busby Berkeley musical. Oh yeah, it's a musical too, by the way. The irony is an unashamedly Australian take on this concept, without the musical numbers, could have been great.
[Christopher Lee Singing] "If you don't name your poison, I'll have to get the boys in, the spirit of adventure opens one's eyes. If you don't name your poison, I'll have to get the boys in, and you'll never see another tequila sunrise..."
But it's no good vaguely saying the cast is crap, I have to bite the bullet and try to explain why, which means getting more personal than I would like. Primarily, if the female romantic lead is meant to be a delightful stunner, don't cast an extra from Cell Block H. That's a terrible thing to say, right? But if you're honest with yourself you know it's true. I shouldn't play James Bond because I have the screen presence of Al Gore and look like Donald Sutherland with a beer belly. In any normal scenario Kate Fitzpatrick is undoubtedly a charming, attractive woman. But she isn't the charismatic enchantress the movie claims (and needs) her to be. She's probably a very good actress, but she's so badly cast that there's no way to tell. She's dry, humourless and forgettable in every way. Unlike Michael Pate as the American president. The US commander-in-chief can be many things, as current reality seems determined to demonstrate, but Les Patterson with launch codes is not among them. There's a specific type of broad character humour that Australians do brilliantly, but it isn't appropriate for heads of state in a supposedly clever comedy, let alone American heads of state in a supposedly clever comedy. He could at least have done an accent. The biggest single problem, though, doesn't lie among the cast. For reasons I doubt anyone will admit to knowing, it was decided The Return of Captain Invincible should be a musical.
"Together, we're part of the roughest, toughest, biggest, kindest, fairest, bestest darn gang in the whole world!"
Again, this could have worked. But nobody commits to the idea, nobody puts their shoulder into it. The 'singing' is closer to talking, and the same staging is employed whether it's a quiet conversation or a show-stopping musical number. It's downright weird. This lack of commitment to the idea is probably what destroys it. And that's a sentiment you could probably extend to the rest of the movie. It doesn't seem to know what it's trying to be. Even having decided to be a comedy, Alan Arkin's approach to humour doesn't belong in the same movie as Michael Pate's, which doesn't belong in the same movie as Christopher Lee's, etc. It's rare enough for one type of bad comedy to end up so bad it's actually good, but for several to do it at once is impossible.
Video: Christopher Lee Sings About Booze
Seven Keys/Elite Entertainment