STEEL (1997)
Director: Kenneth Johnson

The comic book industry is dominated by superheroes, and I believe it goes without saying the most famous of them all is Superman. This heroic visitor from another world essentially created the entire superhero genre following his first appearance in 1938, and has since become one of the most iconic characters in all of popular fiction. Superman's popularity proved to be so much that the entire world took notice in 1992 when DC Comics began a storyline titled "The Death of Superman." The storyline was met with tremendous financial success and was covered by worldwide media. It was soon followed by two more storylines that followed the aftermath, stretching the event out for much of 1993. It was the third chapter in this trilogy ("Reign of the Supermen") that introduced us to Steel, an armored superhero who appeared in Metropolis in an attempt to fill the void created by Superman's death. Not very long after the character made his debut, he was picked by Warner Brothers to be adapted into a motion picture. And what a terrible, terrible decision that was.

STEEL (1997)As the movie begins, we are introduced to John Henry Irons (Shaquille O'Neal), Susan Sparks (Annabeth Gish), and Nathaniel Burke (Judd Nelson), a trio of soldiers who develop advanced weaponry for the military. Their latest creation: A cannon that generates sonic booms to neutralize enemy troops while drastically reducing casualties. However, a cocky Burke cranks the cannon's power up to eleven during a test and inadvertently causes all kinds of damage. A senator visiting the test facility is killed, and Sparks is rendered a paraplegic. The incident leads to Burke being dishonorably discharged and Irons quitting the Army.

Irons returns to his family in Los Angeles, where he quickly picks up a job working in a junkyard owned by his uncle Joe (Richard Roundtree). He isn't back in town for long before he notices local punks packing weapons that are way too advanced for simple street gangs to have. It turns out Burke has been selling the military technology they developed on the black market, and they've found their way into the hands of the neighborhood's resident gangsters. To combat the rising crime rate, Irons, Sparks, and Joe develop their own weapons to counteract the ones on the street. They forge a high-tech suit of armor and a customized sledgehammer, and adopting the name "Steel," Irons becomes a vigilante dedicated to cleaning up Los Angeles and getting Burke's weapons off the streets.

Do you remember Iron Man? Do you remember how awesome it was? Now imagine the complete and total opposite of that. If you can, you'll probably end up with Steel. The movie is just plain terrible from start to finish. The direction is bad, the writing is bad, the acting is bad, the music is bad, the special effects are bad, the costumes are bad, the set design is bad, the props are bad, everything is... well, bad. The story goes that Steel was originally approved with the intention of making it a spinoff to a proposed movie based on "The Death of Superman." That movie ended up going nowhere and was ultimately cancelled, but Warner Brothers decided to just drop the Superman connection altogether and make Steel anyway. The only remaining connection whatsoever between this movie and the Superman mythos is that Shaquille O'Neal has Superman's logo tattooed on his arm. But I hope the guy that made the call to produce Steel got fired, because the movie sucks out loud. And seriously, who had the wild idea to make a movie about Steel anyway? The truth is that he's a D-list character that I'm pretty certain has absolutely no name recognition nowadays, if he ever had any to begin with. But enough about that, let's get into just what makes this movie so awful.

The visionary genius behind Steel was writer/director Kenneth Johnson, known for his work such classic pieces of television like V, The Incredible Hulk, The Six Million Dollar Man, and the original Bionic Woman. He's also done an unbelievably exorbitant amount of made-for-TV movies. But when it comes to making theatrically released flicks, he doesn't exactly have a successful track record. The only things he's ever had released in theaters were Steel and Short Circuit 2, along with his "story by" writing credit on the third Mighty Ducks movie. And while Short Circuit 2 had its moments, Johnson should probably just stick to television. See, my problem with Steel is just how generic it feels. I know that you can only stretch a budget of 16 million bucks so far in a movie like this, but who would have thought a theatrically-released movie from a huge studio like Warner Brothers would look so cheap? The Steel costume looks like a lame Halloween costume, and the other special effects look just plain awful. Johnson's direction doesn't do the movie any favors, either. He completely fails at setting any sort of tone beyond that of a cheesy comedy, which isn't the kind of movie you'd think this would be. The way Johnson and cinematographer Mark Irvin film it, you'd think it was made specifically to run on a second-rate cable network instead of in theaters during the summer blockbuster season. It doesn't help anything that the score composed by Mervyn Warren is uninspired, too. Warren's music fails to stand out or set any kind of mood, and ultimately sounds as generic as the movie looks.

And then there's Johnson's writing, which is ludicrous at best. For starters, the plot is just plain weird. While the character of Steel has always struck me as a lame attempt to duplicate Iron Man, the movie's plot really feels like it's shamelessly ripping off Blankman. Both movies are about a likeable African-American inventor who becomes a superhero in order to defend his neighborhood from gangs influenced by his primary nemesis. If I were Damon Wayans, I'd be pissed that Steel came along and totally cribbed ideas from my movie. But the oddities don't end there. Why would Steel's villain, who has access to super-advanced military weapons, sell these weapons to street gangs on the black market? Wouldn't he make more money by selling them to terrorist factions or foreign dictators? Or why not sell them to guys like Lex Luthor? This is a movie based on one of Superman's supporting characters, after all. He could even have taken these weapons and turned himself into Steel's evil doppelganger (and thus trumped the Iron Man movie at least a decade). But that isn't even the craziest part of the script. Take, for example, a scene where Irons visits Sparks in the hospital. Sparks is severely depressed about being stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of her life, and Irons tries giving her a pep talk to lift her spirits. The pep talk is unsuccessful, so Irons just picks her up — wheelchair and all — and carries her out of the hospital to the applause of every bystander in the area. I guess it's okay to do that to handicapped people, as long as they're wallowing in self-pity and making everybody else as sad as they are. But really, the script has practically organized a cornucopia of goofiness. It's bad enough that Johnson's script includes self-aware references to Shaq's trouble hitting free throws and Richard Roundtree's starring role in Shaft. These bits are enough to pull you out of the movie. But then they had to go and add a wheelchair armed with laser cannons and rocket boosters. That last sentence was not a joke or an exaggeration. I'm not even sure what to say about it. I mean, I'm totally cool with the idea of creating an empowered handicapped character. But here, the effort comes across as silly.

I guess I'll just continue onward toward the acting. Back in the mid-1990s, Shaquille O'Neal was perhaps the most popular player in the NBA. But while Shaq was enjoying success on the basketball court, his extracurricular activities made people wonder if he was a wee bit crazy. There were his four rap albums released between 1993 and 1998. Then there was the notorious Shaq Fu, a video game so awful that there's actually a website out there dedicated to destroying as many copies of the game as possible. And then along came his acting career. He generally gets a pass for Blue Chips, and I won't argue with that. But after the absolutely horrendous disaster that was Kazaam, what idiot thought it was a good idea to cast Shaq in another movie? Were there no other tall black men willing to play the part? Or was Warner Brothers hoping that people had forgotten about Kazaam and chose to pull a bit of ill-advised stunt casting? I will give Shaq credit for being charismatic and for actually trying. But the truth is that he's just not a very good actor. It's as simple as that. He delivers his lines in a wooden monotone, and you get the feeling that he's figured out he's made a tremendous mistake by agreeing to be in this movie. Sometimes you can just look at Shaq's face during the movie and see him realizing that if Kazaam killed his chances at a legitimate acting career, then Steel is just shoveling dirt into the grave. And it's only exacerbated by the fact that he's credited as an executive producer, too. Either he was banking on the movie being a huge success, or he figured he'd just go down with the sinking ship.

Playing our villain du jour is Judd Nelson, whose appearance here only evidences why his career went completely down the crapper after the '80s ended. Nelson's performance is just so incredibly bad that it's impossible to believe that he's supposed to be a credible villain. There's simply no way whatsoever to take him seriously. It's practically the equivalent of an Uwe Boll movie becoming an actual person and getting cast to play the antagonist in a cheesy superhero movie. The rest of the cast, though, do what they can. Despite her role being so poorly written, Annabeth Gish still manages to approach the role with a certain level of sincerity that I appreciated. And I also enjoyed Richard Roundtree's work. I got the feeling that he was in on the joke (meaning he knew just how bad this movie would be), and he decided to cut loose and have fun. Through all the hackneyed jokes, he still manages to be entertaining. There's also a spirited performance from Irma Hall in her small, thankless role as Steel's grandmother. But then there's also Ray J, one of the movie's weakest parts. If you've never heard of him, that's okay. His only claims to fame are that he's Brandy Norwood's less-famous, less-talented brother, and that he was in a sex tape with Kim Kardashian. He plays Steel's little brother, and is stuck in an ultimately pointless subplot. Ray J's acting isn't really good, either. His character is pretty useless, and a combination of that and his performance ultimately renders Ray J's scenes pointless too.

I watched Steel on YouTube in order to write this review, which is helpful since I wanted to spend as little money as I could on it. If I'd had to actually buy or rent a copy of it, I'd have been better off using my money as toilet paper before setting it on fire. And in doing my usual research for this review, I discovered that the people in charge of scheduling release dates at Warner Brothers in 1997 must have been on some serious dope. It turns out that Steel hit theaters a mere two months after another disastrous DC Comics adaptation, Batman and Robin. That's like releasing two Uwe Boll movies in the same summer. I'm surprised putting so much suckage so close to each other didn't create some kind of rift in the space-time continuum. But as harsh as this review has been, and as atrocious as Steel is, I couldn't help but be at least a little amused by how absurd the movie is. And I'm pretty sure kids between the ages of seven and twelve, or people unable to tell the difference between good movies and bad movies, might enjoy it. But unfortunately, I can't give it anything higher than one and a half stars on my usual scale of five. I'm sure it could have been a decent enough movie, had it not sucked so badly.

Final Rating: *


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