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Saturday, April 24, 2010

STEEL -- DVD review by porfle

I'd heard that STEEL (1997) was pretty bad, so of course I couldn't wait to see it. Would it be fun-bad or just bad-bad? Or, as sometimes happens, would I be one of the few people who, in my own insane sort of way, actually thinks it's good? Don't forget, I liked STAN HELSING.

Well, okay--I just got through watching this movie, and I didn't think it was good. In fact, it's not only stupid, it's the champagne of stupid. However, this has got to be one of the most entertaining bad-superhero movies ever made. First of all, it's got lovable lug Shaquille O'Neal as the superhero, and he can't act. That's worth a whole bunch of fun points right there. Second, Shaquille wears a homemade steel suit of armor that makes him look like a giant cockroach, and I never get tired of watching him bop around in it like a big clumsy kid. When he shoots a grappling line out of his wrist band and all two tons of him get reeled up into the air, it's almost surreal. Third--and this is important--it's got the one and only Judd Nelson as the over-the-top evil villain. Scoooore!

Loosely based on the DC Comics character, John Henry Irons is an Army officer who designs top secret weapons but becomes disenchanted with his job when a fellow officer, Susan Sparks (Annabeth Gish), is crippled during a demonstration for a visiting senator. The mishap is caused by Nathaniel Burke (Judd Nelson), an ambitious officer seeking wealth and glory. When they're discharged from the Army, John Henry goes to work in a steel mill and lives with his grandma, while Burke takes over an illegal weapons business and starts selling top secret arms to terrorists.

Using local gang members in a heavily-armed Humvee, Burke begins a city-wide crimewave that prompts John Henry into action. With a wheelchair-bound Sparks at the keyboard of his junkyard nerve center and his uncle Joe (Richard Roundtree) providing the junkyard, "Steel" suits up and goes into the amateur superhero business. He has a bit of trouble maintaining his secret identity, however, since there aren't that many 7'1" black guys running around the neighborhood, and it isn't long before Burke targets his family. Steel tracks Burke down to a warehouse where he's conducting business with terrorists from around the world, but is ambushed and powerless to act when Sparks and his teenage brother Martin (Ray J.) are held hostage.

STEEL was made in 1997, but it looks an awful lot like one of those 70s-era superhero movies that came out before Hollywood learned how to make superhero movies that didn't suck. Kenneth Johnson, creator of such television series as "The Incredible Hulk" and "Six Million Dollar Man", directs in the same pedestrian style as one of those shows except with a much bigger budget to throw away. In other words, it's like a wonderfully elaborate but crappy TV show episode.

Some of the effects are okay, such as the sonic cannon that blasts things with amplified sound waves, and the grand finale is so packed with explosions that things I didn't even know could explode were blowing up all over the place. Not so impressive, however, is Steel's magnetic suit capability--when guns, knives, and trashcan lids start flying at him and sticking to his suit, it looks like something out of a Warner Brothers cartoon.

Shaq looks a little weird tooling around on his motorcycle, too, since his bulk makes it look like a minibike. One of the goofiest things about the movie, however, has got to be Steel's junkyard lair, with a scrap heap secret entrance that opens up so he can scoot in and elude the police.

The dialogue tries to be clever but rarely rises above the level of this remark from Burke to one of his young lackeys: "Eat the hot dog. Don't BE the hot dog." (Now that's some useful advice!) Richard Roundtree gets to remind us of past glories when he admires Steel's gadget-filled hammer--he especially likes (you guessed it) the "shaft." Later, he reacts to a surprising development by uttering the classic line, "Well, I'll be dipped in shit and rolled in bread crumbs." Grandma (Irma P. Hall) funnies things up with her attempts to open up a restaurant called Black and Bleu, featuring recipes combining fancy French cuisine with soul food. In one running gag, her special hominy souffle' keeps falling because her big old grandson keeps makin' too much noise around the house.

Judd Nelson is at his wonderful worst as Burke and is a joy to watch, coolly dispatching a rival coworker (the stunning Claire Stansfield, who played the Jersey Devil on "The X-Files") in an elevator "accident" or hawking super-weapons to terrorists as though he were in a lethal infomercial. Annabeth Gish hits what is probably a career low here but is likable as Sparks, while Richard Roundtree seems to enjoy playing the old geezer role. Other familiar faces that crop up here and there belong to the likes of Charles Napier, Rutanya Alda, Kerrie Keane, and Gary Graham.

The DVD, part of the Warner Archive Collection, is in 1.85:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital, and image and sound are good. The only extra here is a trailer.

STEEL is definitely as bad as I've always heard, but I had fun groaning at the funny parts, laughing at the dramatic parts, and marveling at how flat-out cheesy it all was. It's consistently entertaining in spite of itself, and, best of all, it isn't boring. So if you're a junk film junkie like me, check it out! If should probably watch something else.

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