Steel (1997) Review

Rating: 1.5 Stars

The following review contains spoilers.

Overview:

On a remote military base, John Henry Irons, Susan “Sparky” Sparks, and Nathaniel Burke are conducting experimental weapons testing for the benefit of a visiting senator. They have one gun that shoots crazy sparks and another that can destroy walls with a sonic blast. Wanting to impress the senator, Burke turns the sonic gun to maximum power, which they’d somehow never tested. The resulting blast destroys the building they’re in, killing the senator and crippling Sparks.

Burke is court-martialed and discharged, with John Henry providing crucial testimony against him. Disillusioned and tired of building weapons, John Henry resigns his commission and returns home to Los Angeles. Burke also ends up in L.A., bringing their weapon designs to a local gun-runner named “Big Willy”. When John Henry sees some thugs testing out a sonic gun during a bank robbery, he realizes the work he did has officially fallen into the wrong hands, and he recruits Sparks and a junkyard engineer named “Uncle Joe” to help him build a suit of armor to clean up the streets.

Watching Steel, and knowing it was actually released in theaters, is a little baffling. It has the cast, the premise, the plot, and the production value of a TV movie. It feels like the special two-hour premiere for a new CW series, complete with Team Steel back at the base monitoring Steel’s escapades and providing him intel via maps of the city and police scanners. And in a way that makes sense, as writer/director Kenneth Johnson primarily worked in 80s sci-fi adventure television, like V, Alien Nation, Six Million Dollar Man, and The Incredible Hulk. Steel is definitely of a piece with those types of shows.

Best Parts:

I like the CW shows, so reminding me of those isn’t necessarily the worst thing. I like having Team Steel at the junkyard, feeding him information. They are generally more useful than Steel himself, like when Uncle Joe disguises himself as a delivery man to get some official’s signature, and Sparks calls him to get his voice sample, and together they use that to get John Henry released from jail.

Judd Nelson is well-cast. He just seems like a comic book villain.

There’s a moment where John Henry is chasing a punk through a trainyard, and he’s knocked down onto the tracks, and the punk uses the sonic gun to knock a train car onto him, and he has to roll sideways frantically to not be crushed, and that looked pretty neat.

I really want to eat at Grandma Odessa’s soul food/French cuisine fusion restaurant, Black & Bleu. That sounds delicious! I have no idea why she opened her restaurant on the front yard of her house, but I can dig it.

This movie is so cheesy and dumb that I find it kind of charming.

Worst Parts:

Shaquille O’Neal is very, very bad at acting. There is nothing going on behind his cold, dead eyes. He seems like a wax figure brought to life by a little boy’s wish. You watch this movie and you think, “Wow, Judd Nelson and Annabeth Gish are great actors!” Simply seeming like a human person is completely beyond Shaq’s abilities.

Steel never met a meta-reference it didn’t like. I was kind of amused at the cheesiness of Richard Roundtree’s Uncle Joe proclaiming how proud he was to have made the SHAFT of Steel’s hammer, but it probably didn’t need everyone shaking their head at him, and him basically mugging to the camera, like “Ain’t I a stinker?” And I definitely didn’t need at least three different instances in 90 minutes of John Henry failing to make a basket and everyone chastising him for being “bad at free throws”. And I really, really, really didn’t need the climactic moment of the finale featuring Steel and his little brother trapped in a small room with a live grenade, with a small hole near the ceiling that Steel has to throw the grenade through, while his brother screams “But you’re so bad at free throws! Bend your knees!”, and the grenade slowly circling the “rim” of the hole before triumphantly going through.

The whole finale is really dull. Not that the preceding action scenes were so dynamic, with a stiff Shaq spending most of the fights standing in place, using his hammer not as a hammer but as a gun. The finale centers around John Henry using the most transparent reverse-psychology in history on Burke, pleading with him not to push the red button on Steel’s hammer because it will make it too powerful, when actually it turns on the electromagnet, flinging itself back at Steel, so he can continue not hammering with it. Either way, he’s not very effective, and it comes down to Sparks and her laser-wheelchair blasting all the bad guys for him. Burke is finally defeated when a laser blast reflects off Steel’s armor and ends up killing Burke, even though at no other point in the movie had anything reflected off his armor.

Sparks probably needed to get out of the V.A. hospital and get back into the world, but when John Henry destroys the window she’s looking out of (dick move!) and physically carries her out of the hospital while she screams in protest, it doesn’t exactly read as “heroic.”

Steel’s costume looks bad, and it comes down to that helmet. Shaq is so big, that you’d think when Steel is standing there laughing while gang members fire a machine gun at him that at least one bullet would hit his massive exposed neck or chin and just end this.

Kenneth Johnson also wrote a theme song for the movie called “Steel Yourself” that plays during a montage of the team building the armor. You actually see Shaq hammering at a piece of metal while the song screams “Steel!” with every hit. It’s pretty incredible. In fact maybe I should move this bit to Best Parts?

“Eat the hog dog, don’t be one.”

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