Looking back on my childhood, I’ve found that my family went through a number of… I guess they’d be called “trends,” where one or more of us would get enthralled by a certain activity for a while, and then, quickly as it came, the interest would fade. Around the late 1990’s, we were really into renting movies and music from our local library. We would literally stop in two or three times a week, picking up a handful of classic films and older music each trip. And the one thing I vividly remember is every time we made our way to the Audio/Video section, I’d always want to rent Steel. I also remember every time being told, “No Sam, we’re not getting that one. It’s really bad.” It blew me away. How could a movie be so bad, it wasn’t worth the dollar to rent it?

Thirteen years later, I finally got the chance to watch Steel. And you know what? I think my folks were right.

Starring: Shaquille O’Neal, Annabeth Gish, Judd Nelson,
Richard Roundtree, Ray J
Director: Kenneth Johnson
Company: Warner Bros.
Rating: PG-13
Year: 1997

It’s Hammer Time!

Alright, here goes: The film opens to an abandoned desert-ish landscape where the U.S. military is field-testing their newest hi-tech weaponry. The weapons were developed by 7’1” John Henry Irons (Shaquille O’Neal) and his best friend/kinda love interest/genius inventor Susanne Sparks (Annabeth Gish). Also present is Nathaniel Burke (Judd Nelson), a overzealous fellow military scientist. Eager to impress a visiting governor, Burke cranks the throttle of one of their newest weapons, a sonic destabilizer, up to eleven, and creates a massive explosion, one that kills the governor and cripples Sparks. John testifies against Burke (who is discharged), then quits the army in search of greener pastures. Wait, can you just quit the army?

John heads back to his home town of Los Angeles, and takes a job at a local steel mill. Burke also travels to L.A., and immediately gains ties with a local black market arms dealer/arcade machine salesman. You see, Burke stole the military’s plans for their super weapon, and is ready to mass produce them for a profit. Some time rolls by, we’re introduced to a sub plot about John’s aunt who wants to start her own restaurant, the bad guys break into a few banks, John kidnaps Sparks from the local VA hospital, and finally he decides that he wants to be a superhero.

Our dynamic duo is aided in their attempt at heroism by a man who simply goes by the name“Uncle Joe” (Richard “Shaft” Roundtree). They set up a command center in an old junkyard, John build a suit of super-reflective armor, and Sparks learns to cope with life in a wheelchair. Finally, 45 minutes into the movie, Steel takes to the streets. A few chase scenes (and a ton of bad puns) later, Steel confronts Burke during a black market auction. The fighty-fighty ensues, Sparks takes out a bunch of gang members with her rocket-powered wheelchair, and Steel saves the day by shooting a free throw. Seriously.

At Least He Has Basketball to Fall Back On…

This movie is so cheesy, it almost made me lactose intolerant. I realize that there was a lot of “winking at the camera” (in fact, I’m convinced it’s the only way Shaq knows how to act), and I honestly could’ve look past it… if any of the goofy antics and dialog was actually funny. The “I-can’t-shoot-a-free-throw” schtick got old fast, the sidestory about the aunt trying to make a souffle was unneeded fluff, and those terrible puns… I’m not exaggerating this, I was starting to get physically ill from all the bad puns. You literally can’t got more than a minute and a half without some “clever” or “meta-textual” remark. And boy oh boy, did I get tired of hearing people proclaim “Johnny!” Just awful. Poor Richard Roundtree, a decent enough actor, was reduced to a hyperactive cross between Alfred Pennyworth and Fred Sanford. And you know there’s a problem when Judd Nelson’s the best actor in the flick.

Bad puns aside, the actual dialog from the neighborhood kids, the street gangs, etc. is pretty lousy as well. From what I’ve read, the director actually took the script to inner city kids to make sure that the “lingo” was authentic. What we get in return is almost unintelligible gibberish. Ray J, as Steel’s annoying little brother, is especially guilty of butchering the English language.

Never mind all that, back to Shaq. Not only did “grace” us with his acting, he also supplied the majority of the non-scored music. Don’t believe me? Check out the music video for the track “Men of Steel,” featuring KRS-One, Ice Cube, B-Real, and Peter Gunz. For you’re own good, I suggest fast forwarding to the 0:40 to catch the man himself in action.

I believe the phrase is, “You have seen it… YOU CANNOT UNSEE IT!”

Finally, and I know this is just a little nitpick, but if you’re going to make a movie about the character Steel, and you go so far as to give him a steel hammer to swing around, would it be too much to ask to have the main character USE the hammer like it was intended, like the comic, AT LEAST ONCE?! If you wanted to just give Shaq a gun, don’t pander to the comic-reading audience by disguising it as a hammer. C’mon.

Does Any Part of Steel NOT Stink?

Kinda. The Steel costume, while nothing like the comic version, looked pretty good. The helmet looked a little rubbery, but for the most part, I can’t find anything to complain about. Still don’t know why they didn’t just go ahead and add the red cape, though. As I said earlier, Judd Nelson was probably the best actor on-screen, which is both awesome and kind of sad. He really know how to play the smarmy, cool-headed villain, and to be honest, his scenes in the later half of the film are what I think a real-life Lex Luthor would be like. Annabeth Gish does a decent enough job as Sparks, who was obviously patterned after Oracle. The writers’ attempt to remove any mention of Batman to her backstory fared much better than Steel himself. If it weren’t for all those damn corny lines, she would have been the highlight of the film. And as a serious film and TV nerd, I really dug all of the visual references to the oft-forgotten television series Alien Nation, which was director Kenneth Johnson’s pet project.

Buy, Rent, or Pass

I know what the writers, the director, and the actors wanted to do with this film. They wanted to make Steel lighthearted yet deep, kid-friendly yet edgy, and they wanted to sell a ton of toys. There is a fairly strong anti-gang message in there somewhere, but it’s hidden beneath a pile of bad dialog and worse acting. Honestly, if you’re looking for a far superior superhero movie with similar themes, I’d pass on Steel and look up Meteor Man. The biggest shame for me is, given a better script, better acting, and no “Shaq Attack,” Steel could potentially be a good movie. And in the age of remakes, I wouldn’t mind revisiting this character. I give Steel 1 ½ out of 5 stars.

Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆

The Author

Sam Dunham

Sam Dunham

Sam Dunham was born at a very early age, and shortly after became entangled in the world of film. His first memories are of seeing King Ralph in his local theater. He learned to talk with the help of Adam West's Batman: The Movie. He's one of the few people to still own a working RCA Videodisc player (heck, it's where he first watched Young Frankenstein!). When Sam is not perusing his extensive B- movie collection or sitting in dark theaters with a tub of popcorn, he is usually found reading comic books, fixing computers, toiling away at his day job, working some nights at a local radio station as a "soundboard guy," and going to class so that he can one day toil away at his day job fixing computers. One time, Lou Ferrigno conned him out of $20.00. But that's another story...

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  1. Larry King
    May 18, 2010 at 8:47 am — Reply

    God this movie is really bad. This coming from the director of one of the best seqeuls of all time, Short Circuit 2, it could have been better, but that’s what you get when you have Kazaam in your movie.

  2. May 18, 2010 at 5:05 pm — Reply

    From the way you describe it, it sounds like the plot wasn’t bad: pretty standard hero arc, with some messages thrown in.

    If it was something other than a Shaq vehicle and had better dialog, it could have been pretty good. That’s just going from your review, though.

    I avoided this movie like the plague when it came out.

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