Sunday, May 17, 2020


Directed by Kenneth Johnson.
1997. Rated PG-13, 97 minutes.
Cast: Shaquille O'Neal, Annabeth Gish, Judd Nelson, Richard Roundtree, Ray J, Irma P. Hall, Hill Harper, Charles Napier, Kevin Grevioux, Thom Barry, Rutanya Alda

In the 1990s, Shaquille O'Neal became a cultural phenomenon. He was larger than life in a figurative sense, yes, but seemingly in a literal one, too. He was a rising basketball star with a youthful, fun-loving personality and an infectious smile. And even though his profession is filled with freakishly gifted humans, at over seven feet tall, hovering around three hundred pounds, athleticism that rarely comes in that size, and the Herculean feats to match, he made his colleagues seem average. He was our own very own jolly green giant, sans chlorophyll, of course. It was only natural that he became a brand unto himself. He sold us sneakers, burgers, rap records, and showed up in movies. 1997's Steel sees him try his hand at playing a superhero. The results are, um, interesting.

O'Neal plays the not-so-subtly named John Henry Irons, a soldier in the U.S. Army who is on the team charged with demonstrating a highly powerful, top secret weapon. We quickly meet him, and see him make googly eyes with fellow soldier Susan Sparks (Gish). We're also introduced to a third soldier, Nathaniel Burke (Nelson). While trying to impress the attending senator, Burke cranks that baby up to eleven, things go haywire, the senator winds up dead, Sparks is left paralyzed. Burke is court-martialed, but somehow doesn't get any jail time, Sparks begins wasting away in a hospital, and our hero retires from the military. Through some plot machinations, they all wind up in Los Angeles where Burke begins putting the same top secret weapon and others into the hands of local thugs. Immediately knowing what they are, Irons sets out to stop them with the help of wheelchair bound tech genius Sparks and Uncle Joe played by Richard Roundtree. While Sparks works on gadgets and Uncle Joe cheerleads, Irons crafts a rather cumbersome looking suit of armor and dons it to take on the bad guys.

Like most of the lesser superhero flicks, Steel never settles on a tone. It's in that weird space where it doesn't know how serious it should take itself so it tries to be playful and weighty at the same time. This could work, but there is campy glaze over the entire thing that I'm not sure is on purpose. When you pull that concoction out of the oven it's a goofy mess, and not in a good way. You wind up laughing at it, not with it. The jokes are eye-rollingly bad. This includes a running gag about Shaq's real life inability to shoot free throws morphing into a major plot point. On the other hand, Steel's heroic feats often inspire chuckles rather than awe. Additionally, Richard Roundtree's presence in this movie is justified by a cringe worthy Shaft reference.

Aside from tone, the film doesn't know what to do with just about anything. Irons has a little brother, played by Ray J years before a certain sex tape launched the Kardashians into superstardom. In one breath they tell us he's a bad kid well on his way to death and destruction. In the next, they tell us he's not that at all, but we're just going to keep acting like he is. Even worse, they totally botch the whole secret identity. I submit that if your costumed protagonist is played by one of the largest men in the western hemisphere you can probably get away with not worrying about that whether people know who he is or not. But since this is a superhero movie from just before the current golden age of the genre was given life by Blade, that's what you did. And this movie did it poorly. The bad guys obviously knew who he was because, duh, seven foot, three hundred pound black man. Even the most ardent proponents of the "they all look alike" club can figure that one out. Most of you know that I am indeed black. I've also lived in predominantly black neighborhoods most of my life. Unless I'm in the vicinity of a basketball team there just aren't many brothas walking around I could even mistake for having those measurements. This is fine but since somebody just has to be confused about who he is, the movie chooses it to be his own brother, of all people. It also tries to keep it ambiguous about whether his mom knows. Sigh.

Most egregiously, the movie can't figure out what to do with the relationship between Irons and Sparks, aside from giving them both names that are way too on the nose. As mentioned, they're making eyes at each other from the very first scene. Throughout the movie, it's obvious that if they haven't already, these two definitely want to spark up a romance. Okay, bad joke, but we knew the routine back in 1997. The superhero is supposed to save the day and get the girl. For the second part of that, Steel makes things awkwardly platonic. The only thing I could do was think of reasons why the powers that be would do this. Was it written this way before Shaq became attached to the project? If so, is it because Shaq had a pretty asexual image at the time? Is it because it was 1997 and no one thought audiences could handle an interracial relationship between a superhero and his tech? Is it because it was 1997 and no one thought audiences could handle a relationship between an able-bodied man and a paraplegic? In any event, it comes off as an unnatural, and unnatural looking, conclusion.

On the flip side, the movie is absolutely certain about, the villains. It's so sure of him, it screws that up, too. The movie never gives Judd Nelson any space to build his bad guy. He's just straight up evil from the very first second we lay eyes on him. I saw his face and instantly knew he was the bad guy just from his expression. I don't have any incredible abilities, the movie makes it obvious. If we somehow miss it, we're blatantly told he's the bad guy within the first 10 minutes. To reinforce this Nelson's Burke has no redeeming qualities at all, and is given nothing but recycled mustache twirling dialog. Nelson is normally a fine actor, but has nothing to work with and was apparently directed to look as evil as possible in every shot. His choice of henchmen left a lot to be desired, but they definitely couldn't be mistaken for anything other than what they are. They look like they were filming the hood version of a Mad Max flick and wound up in the wrong place. And poor Hill Harper. You're forgiven if you don't know who he is, but he's normally a dignified presence onscreen. However, had the hero of this film not been a black man, I'd be accusing him of cooning for white folks.

The film's own confusion, glaring plot holes, and ham-fisted manner make it a truly bad film. However, the bevy of unintentional humor and breezy pacing make it somewhat watchable. There's a certain charm to a movie that you can have a laugh at, goes by quickly, and doesn't require your strict attention. It's also got a surprisingly good theme song I just had to mention. The legendary Quincy Jones is responsible for what I can best describe as him playing a John Williams composition and slapping some funk on top of it. It also made lots of nods to Batman. Imagine if Bruce Wayne lived in a junkyard and you'll get the idea. So, while it's terrible I laughed and pointed at it enough that it began to win me over. No, I didn't suddenly start thinking it was a good movie. But I did laugh and roll my eyes enough to make it so bad it's awesome!


  1. I do remember this film and I knew it was going to suck. I remember it only made less than a million in its first weekend and then just disappeared after a week or 2 in the theaters. I did see it on TV and it was worse than I thought. Shaq is a decent actor based on what he did in Uncle Drew (though I wish I didn't have to see his bare-naked ass) but this film did none of those things. It was just lame. This was one of the series of flops from Warner Brothers that did help kill Tim Burton's attempted production of Superman Lives.

    1. Yeah, Shaq-booty was a bit much. Thankfully, it doesn't show up here, but yeah it's bad.

  2. Oh my gosh! I found myself giggling just at the images. This sounds terrible but I feel compelled to see it. I think I would have a blast.

  3. I remember Kazaam pretty well but I don't remember this at all. "So bad it's awesome" always temps me though.