Monday, June 27, 2011

Steel (1997)

In 1997, Shaquille O'Neal scuttled his (to that point) successful film career by starring in Steel, the comic book movie that really should not exist. It's a testament to DC Comics' total lack of diverse characters in important roles that they gave a movie to a character who had been a supporting Superman character with the exception of a forgettable series in the mid-90's. I mean imagine if Aztek the Ultimate Man was given a feature film, and you get an idea how insane this concept really is. And at least Aztek can boast being created by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar! But Shaq wanted to be a superhero, and apparently Steel was the only one available. This means DC passed over such deserving characters of color as Black Lightning, John Stewart (the other Green Lantern), and... I can't think of a third.

This opening titles sequence can be re-used for a PBS special on how Steel is made.

Fortunately, the writer and director spare us this completely forgettable character by jettisoning all but the most basic piece of his origin and inventing new bad guys for him to fight, as well as moving him from Metropolis to South Central. John Henry Irons (Shaq) is an army lieutenant weapons designer and giant who is bffs with sassy Susan "Sparky" Sparks (Annabeth Gish, from Mystic Pizza), another designer with, I assume, big dreams. The third member of their team is smarmy Nathaniel Burke (Judd Nelson), a man so villainous it's amazing he hadn't considered a political career. Burke tries to impress a Senator, presumably to get his foot in the door of Congress, but his reckless showboatery causes a ridiculous sonic accident that kills the Senator and leaves Sparky paralyzed.

Pull my finger is still popular among the paralyzed.

Irons leaves the military to go home to South Central, while the disgraced Burke also heads to LA to form a partnership with an evil arcade game seller/arms dealer. Maybe it's me, but the idea of a millionaire arcade game seller is maybe the most ridiculous thing in this film. We get like 15 minutes of Shaq trying to make a difference, including getting hit on by his old girl from the neighborhood, who is now a cop. But on the way to a meeting on gang violence, a gang blows up their car using Irons' weapons. Irons tries to stop the gang, but after a lengthy chase, they make like Kobe and leave him winded and nursing a hurt back.

Not content to knock-off Superman and Batman, Steel ups the ante by having a knock-off Die Hard cop.

After getting blown off by his former commanding officer, Irons realizes he's got to take the law into his own hands as only a 7'1" man can. First, he recruits the now wheelchair-bound Sparks from a slummy VA hospital in the dilapidated cesspool that is St. Louis, where he has to teach her to believe again. Mostly that involves carrying her wheelchair out of the hospital against her will. But he takes her to his secret junkyard crimelab, where he puts her in charge of R&D for his secret superhero project, financed by Shaq's uncle Shaft, I mean... Uncle Joe (Richard Roundtree). He finally gets his Steel outfit, and let me tell you, it looks tuhrrible.

"Bite my shiny magnetic metal ass!"

After that we get some Batman-rip-off scenes of Steel vs. the police, a showdown with mercenary and gravel-voice-having Kevin Grevioux, a very smart man and a very poor writer (he wrote Underworld and a dreadful version of the comic book New Warriors), and of course, a final confrontation with the Breakfast Club. Will Shaq rid South Central of Judd Nelson's evil? Will Sparky ever outfit her wheelchair with missile launchers? Tune in to Steel for the answers, true believers. Same Shaq time, same Shaq channel.

SPOILER: Sparky's chair does in fact shoot missiles.

Honestly, as a film, Steel is just awful. Shaq's not particularly talented as an actor, but he gets unfairly singled out here. Judd Nelson is equally awful and the villain is thinly written and uninteresting. The script is poor enough that it's just bad casting in both their cases as much as it is a case of simple bad performance. The set designs are bland, the music is atrocious. The film tries to be grounded in reality with its urban theme and boring police chases, yet the plot revolves around sonic superweapons smuggled into arcade games. Also, Shaq is just too big to have an alter ego. He gets positively ID'ed like 5 minutes after going out in public, and why not? I mean a giant weapons designer couldn't have anything to do with a giant superhero carrying experimental weapons. His secret ID makes Bruce Wayne look like a master of disguise. For one thing, Bruce Wayne isn't 7'6" and a noted designer of Batmobiles.

That said, it's still not quite silly enough to be successful camp, and the constant in-jokes to stuff like Shaft makes it clear they were going for "all ages fun!" and ended up with "lame for kids AND adults." I'd recommend Batman and Robin over this, because at least the set design was fun and most of the cast knew they were in a re-imagining of the Adam West Batman.

Arbitrary Rating:

A Ben Wallace free throw (one of the only players ever to be worse at this than Shaq)

Quotable Quotes

Lamont: That's your laser kid!

Neo-Nazi Thug: (about the Internet) Yeah, we can pick up all kinds of good crap. Not just porno.

Uncle Joe: I did the metal work! I especially like the Shaft!

Burke: Eat the hot dog, don't be one.

Martin: (about an arcade) This place is hip! I'ma own a spot like this one day!

Martin: (about a grenade) Up there! Throw it! (points to a small hole 10 feet in the air)
Steel: I never make these!

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