When I sat down to watch "Steel" for this review, my memory of it's very brief theatrical run was all but a handful of hazy memories. I seem to recall it being boring most of all; thirteen years later, I just had to re-visit what many consider to be one of the worst superhero films ever committed to celluloid. So how bad is "Steel?" The short answer is that it's 95 minutes of my life I can never get back.
Director Kenneth Johnson is by no means a hack. "V" is an extremely solid miniseries, a hallmark of 80s TV, and the "Alien Nation" TV movies aren't masterpiece, but still entertaining. It seems though when Johnson takes it to the big screen, the result is painful, as documented by this film and his previous big-screen effort, "Short Circuit 2." "Steel" however is far more unbearable than Johnny 5's ill-fated return to theaters. "Steel" is a tacky 90s time capsule; if there's a cliché you can think of, chances are, it clumsily finds it's way on screen. The film's two biggest obstacles though are the script and leading man, Shaquille O'Neal.
O'Neal rode the pop culture wave in the 90s to two major feature film roles and two, notably bad rap albums. "Steel" shows why the charisma of a sports star isn't enough reason to thrust him into the acting limelight; O'Neal is thoroughly unconvincing at everything he attempts. When he doesn't have a dopey grin slapped on his face, he attempts to emote while looking like he's reading off of cue cards. The rest of the cast is so sickeningly enthusiastic about every line they deliver, that the whole movie could be mistaken for some sort of dry parody. The only passable performance I can recall comes from a golden retriever who winds up being more adept at fighting than the film's hero.
The film, very loosely based on the DC character of the same name, smartly avoids incorporating the character's past as a weapon's designer, save for one line that probably slipped through the cracks of editing. Instead, John Henry Irons (O'Neal) is a solider assigned to a futuristic weapons design squad. When squad mate Burke (Judd Nelson cashing a quick paycheck) tries to show off to a senator during a weapons demo, he ends up killing the senator and forever crippling another squad mate, Susan Sparks (Annabeth Gish). Irons testifies against Burke and retires, returning home with his grandmother and brother Martin (Ray J).
For those who aren't familiar with the character of Steel, all you need to know is during the early 90s, following the "death of Superman" comic phase, Steel was one of the replacement heroes. Steel chooses to take up the good fight after having his life saved earlier by the Man of Steel. In this film, there was obviously no budget for such a back-story; instead, Irons chooses to fight crime for reason the audience must infer. This half-hearted writing and direction relegates the pivotal sequence of every super-hero film, the origin/suit-building to a sloppy montage backed by gospel music. When Irons finally dons the suit and takes the titular mantle, the film goes head-over-heels down a mountain.
For starters, the suit looks like silver vinyl. To make matters worse the poorly paced action sequences are dull and uninspired. The only memorable spot for me came from spotting John Hawkes as a mugger, who somehow manages to be captured by the awkward hero. It never gets any better, with shoddy action traded for a patchwork master plan by Burke which involves all parties, right down to Iron's uncle (Richard Roundtree). By the time the credits roll, you'll ask yourself, "what did I watch?" A train wreck is a cliché, but fitting description. The film has no sense of pacing, with the first 50 minutes devoted to back-story and a complicated plot set-up that definitely doesn't match the payoff. An awkward romance between Irons and Sparks is hinted at, but like many things, goes nowhere. To top it off, every aspect of the setting is dated, even by the standards of 1997. A local street gang sports wacky clothes and eye patches, the sleazy businessman backing Burke's scheme is your stereotypical yuppie, and there's not one, not two, but three jokes about Shaq's poor free throw ability. Even Richard Roundtree gets to deliver the most awkward "Shaft" reference in the history of cinema.
"Steel" is an awful superhero movie solely for barely being a superhero movie. The hero himself is only in action for maybe 25 minutes tops and does absolutely nothing noteworthy. Even such comic stinkers as "Superman IV" and "Catwoman" deliver some decent action, not to mention attempts at acting. It's shocking the man who brought us "V" turned out this turd. "Steel" is bad, not so bad it's good, just plain bad.
I was quite surprised at the quality of the transfer from this Warner Archives title. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer packs a notable amount of detail with solid color reproduction. A moderate amount of grain is cast over the entire image, which only turns into strong digital noise a handful of times. Contrast is strong and the rest of the transfer remains free of digital trouble.
The English Dolby surround track is far more lacking in quality. Dialogue is mixed a little lower than the effects and music, which are all distortion free but lack any lower frequency life.
The lone extra is the film's theatrical trailer.
"Steel" likely and fortunately ended the cinematic career of Shaq. As an actor he's as sloppy and miserable as the costume he dons in this movie. The movie doesn't have a single saving grace and is ultimately a 95-minute exercise in masochism. Ineloquently, "Steel" sucks. Skip It.