Before Marvel hit big with a run of cinema franchises, notably X-Men and Spider-Man, they had flirtations with lower-class approaches: Cannon (Captain America, an aborted Spider-Man), New World (The Punisher), an unreleased Roger Corman Fantastic Four made solely to secure the rights and, in the 1970s, a run of TV movies (Doctor Strange, covert Thor and Daredevil pilots in Hulk movies). This TV movie, scripted by David Goyer of the Blade films, feels like a throwback to those times: it gets all the characters from the comics onscreen and sketches elements from the originals, but that’s about it. Casting David Hasselhoff in the lead is the sort of thing which guarantees a high switch-off factor among fans, but with stubble, eyepatch and cigar he’s not a disaster – I’d have preferred Tim Thomerson, but who wouldn’t?
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Fury as a WWII Sergeant, in competition with DC’s Sgt Rock, then brought him out of retirement as head of secret good guy agency SHIELD in a mid-60s run, notably drawn by Jim Steranko, which cashed in on the superspy trend with specific homages to The Man From UNCLE. Here, Fury is a retired Cold Warrior, though the villains he tackles are leftover Nazis, and the set-up is that the frozen, infected corpse of his arch-enemy Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Campbell Lane, with hair) is stolen from secure storage by his evil children, Andrea aka Viper (Sandra Hess) and Werner (Scott Heindl) so they can synthesise the ‘Deathshead Virus’ he once used to threaten the world and which wound up killing him and getting bonded to his DNA. This inevitably prompts SHIELD, now run by a comic bureaucrat who hates mavericks (Tom McBeath), to find Fury in retreat and get him back on the case: he does the usual refusal-turning-to-acceptance when Strucker is mentioned. On the SHIELD heli-carrier (which looks fine, if a bit like Cloudbase from Captain Scarlet), Fury is frustrated by a no smoking sign in a lift and a computer which won’t recognise him because it needs to scan both his eyes. Fury’s supporting cast are in place, played enthusiastically by no-namers who probably hoped to wind up series regulars: Lisa Rinna pouts acceptably as the Contessa, Gary Chalk is fine sans moustache and derby as Dum-Dum, Tracy Waterhouse is the ESP agent whose psychic probes allow for the barest echo of the psychedelia that Steranko fused with the spy stuff, Ron Canada is token black Gabe Jones (now a boffin), Neil Roberts a British-accented rookie who catches up on the backstory, Adrian Hughes a quickly-killed Clay Quatermain. Jasper Sitwell fails to get any representation, but a minor Interpol inspector (Stellina Rusich) is dressed like Agent 13 from the Captain America crossovers and a plot frill near the end based on a Life Model Decoy robot.
The agents mostly get to wear black leathers like the later film X-Men and point guns, but there’s a lot more fun to be had from the baddies, who have the hydra logo but not the silly green hoods: Peter Haworth wheezes as leftover Nazi Arnim Zola (not a big head on a TV screen, but nicely nasty) and Hess (combining two characters from the comics) steals the film with a cartoon German accent, a lot of seething Madame Hydra sexuality in super-tight designer outfits (plus poison lipstick) and a bit that prefigures O-Ren’s business meeting in Kill Bill as she impresses her lieutenants with her worthiness to take over Hydra by killing a grumbling underboss. This is a genuine comic strip performance, ridiculous but a great deal of fun, and Hasselhoff matches her tone. It’s not a serious take in the way that the X-Men or Spider-Man films are, but it is in the general region of the deliberate camp of some Marvels, as are details like the pasty-faced, bald, black shades-sporting Hydra goons. Sadly, the plot is from stock: missiles with virus aimed at New York, and a launch sequence that has to be stopped. In an era of Alias, it probably couldn’t have cut it as a series – though it might have fit comfortably into that cartoony Xena mould. Directed by Rod Hardy (Thirst).