Over saturation is impossible to escape these days when something becomes immensely popular. What starts out as a way to meet demand quickly backfires and burns the public out on the very thing the supposedly crave. Featuring NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal – already the centerpiece of another film, rap albums, video games, and more – and based upon a character that sprung from the aftermath of the short-lived death of Superman, the 1997 film Steel marks a crossover of over saturation.
Athletes starring in films wasn’t anything new. Jackie Robinson starred in The Jackie Robinson Story; Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and Jim Brown both made the transition from the gridiron to the big screen; Kareem Abdul-Jabar fought Bruce Lee in the uncompleted Game of Death, and so on and so on. It’s impossible to deny that Shaquille O’Neal is charismatic, but charisma cannot cover-up his inability to act. Shaq’s inability to deliver a line or emote is simultaneously the film’s greatest strength and weakness. Unable to convincingly act at all gives the film a sense of amateurism, but it’s that amateurism that makes the film watchable in the so-bad-it’s-good sense.
After an accident during a weapons test left a US Senator dead and his best friend paralyzed, weapons designer, John Henry Irons (the most imaginative of all possible names), resigns his post and moves to Los Angeles to earn a sweaty but honest dollar. At the same time, free from consequences for his role in the death of a senator, Nathaniel Burke (Judd Nelson) also moves to L.A. with the intent of selling the latest and greatest in lethal hardware. Irons travels to St. Louis to rescue his best friend, Susan Sparks (Annabeth Gish) from the crippling depression that was caused from her being crippled. When Burke has supplied the top gang in L.A. with advanced weaponry, Irons and Sparks (ugh) with the help of folksy Uncle Joe (Richard Roundtree) respond by creating a steel super-suit-thingy. Emboldened by being encased in steel, Irons takes on the gangs of L.A. before laying waste to every bad guy in L.A. during the climactic arms deal gone bust.
It’d be wrong for me to comment of the cinematic style of Steel. The visual style of the film isn’t cinematic, it’s more like a made-for-TV movie. Writer-director Kenneth Johnson built his career working in television – The Incredible Hulk, Alien Nation, V, hell, even an episode of Adam-12 – and he makes no effort to adapt his style for another medium. Characters aren’t subtle. Everything is spelled out, sometimes more than once. The frame is dominated by close-ups. Reaction shots, lots and lots of reaction shots. Basically Johnson made Steel into the best episode of M.A.N.T.I.S. ever.
Which brings us to the logistical problems of making a film starring a 7-foot-1 basketball player as its lead. Not that Shaq was ever known for his graceful movements, but adding a constrictive rubber suit to his already enormous frame only serves to make his movement even more awkward. Shaq’s size alone makes it impossible for characters to share the frame. Early on, when Burke and Irons have a heated argument in a hallway, the imbalance between the two men’s sizes has a distorting effect. But that distorting effect is present throughout the film. When he rides his motorcycle through the streets of Downtown L.A. it looks as if a normal-sized individual is riding one of those mini-motorcycles, like that scene in Planet Terror.
The suit is cheesy, no doubt, but where they really messed the suit up was in having the edges of the mask visibly move whenever Shaq talks. Then again, this a film where the hero will stand still while a carload of gangsters shoot at him with automatic weapons even though his eyes, mouth, and neck are exposed to danger and then jump out of the way of a bad guy with a wooden board.
Steel is a film that thinks it has some kind of social conscious, yet that consciousness is outdated, misguided, and, more often than not, just plain wrong.
Under the guidance of producer Quincy Jones, Steel is made with the noble intention of manufacturing a hero to counter act what Jones sees as a role model deficiency. Part of Burke’s plan to create demand for his new weaponry is to place them in the hands of L.A.’s worst gang. Combining the red of the Bloods and the blue of the Crips this gang comes out with their color – purple. This gang is able to recruit new members through the bad guy’s arcade where he provides employment to inner-city youth – because, you know, society’s greatest ills are gangs, video games, and gainful employment; there’s only the one bad weapons manufacturer, the others are totally cool.
Then there’s the moments where Sparks is depressed at a VA Hospital when Irons shows up with the intention of lifting her spirits. His work is to no avail as she’s lost the use of her legs she’s lost her will to live. Instead of honoring his friend’s free will, Irons just picks her up, wheelchair and all, and carries her from St. Louis to L.A., from the darkness to the light. Sparks then finds new purpose and when she’s not helping Irons clean up the gritty streets of L.A. she’s modifying the latest and greatest wheelchair arsenal ever made. This film also gives her weird lines like, “You be my legs and I’ll be your eyes.” Because she’s a helpless cripple, of course, she is kidnapped by the bad guys before the film’s climax, but her wheelchair weaponry saves the day! In the end it is shown that she has modified her chair to allow her to stand, thus restoring her will to live. Like so much in Steel, all of this is done with best intentions but comes off as horribly condescending.
As misguided as Steel’s social consciousness is, its sense of humor is just as bad. It stakes an early claim to the humor where a passing mention of something from pop culture counts as a joke. After making Steel’s mighty hammer, not Mjolnor, Uncle Joe (Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft) says, “I like the shaft.” Wakka wakka wakka! Or when Grandma Odessa (Irma P. Hall) makes a reference to James Brown – get it? She’s old! I’m surprised that Colonel David, played by Charles Napier, didn’t make some passing reference to Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! There are many more cultural references ranging from the Wu-Tang Clan to Batman. If there’s one joke this film loves it’s the joke that Shaq can’t make free throws. It is repeated at least 3 different times in the film, once including the line, “I could never make the free throws.” Just in case NOBODY got the joke on its 3rd go-round.
For all its attempts at misguided social commentary and redundant jokes, Steel really boils down to what I call the Shaq Paradox. As a marginal character, Steel only made its way to the big screen because of Shaq’s involvement. But Shaq is also the source of the film’s most glaring deficiency. That acting deficiency is the source of the film’s guilty pleasure. Sure, Steel is a bad film. But any film with the line, “Well I’ll be dipped in shit and rolled in breadcrumbs,” can’t be all bad. Can it?
Up Next: Judge Dredd (1995)