In the late ‘90s, there was no one bigger — literally and the new meaning of the word “literally” — than Shaquille O’Neal. Since he was a genetic freak and good enough basketball player that he stopped hearing the word “no” once he hit fifteen or so, everyone was like, “Sure, Shaq. Let’s get you that terrible movie career you always wanted. How about you cut a godawful rap album while you’re at it?” Thus 1997’s Steel happened.
Tagline: Man. Metal. Hero.
More Accurate Tagline: Man. Basketball. Food. Hammer. Noun.
Guilty Party: Shaq has always been public about his abiding love for Superman. In his days with the Lakers, Staples Center would explode with one of his big plays, while John Williams’s majestic score piped through the house. So it makes a certain amount of sense that Superman’s biggest fan in reality should play Superman’s biggest fan in the comic books: Steel, DC’s answer to Iron Man. Appropriately enough for DC’s more Gee Whiz characters, Steel is noble inventor inspired by the Man of Steel’s heroism to make the world a better place, rather than an out of control drunk with an Ayn Rand fetish. As to why the latter is so much more popular? Well, it comes down to the difference in Robert Downey, Jr. and Shaquille O’Neal. They are acting, and presumably basketball, Bizarros.
Synopsis: John Henry Irons (O’Neal, and yes that’s his name from the comics) is part of some Army division where they make experimental weapons. On a routine test, his reptilian rival Nathaniel Burke (Judd Nelson, doing everything but tasting the air with his tongue), fucks up the test, killing a senator and crippling John’s friend Sparky (Annabeth Gish). Burke gets drummed out of the service, and a disillusioned, and possibly slightly sleepy Irons (it’s tough to tell with Shaq’s acting) leaves the service.
He returns to his hometown of Los Angeles to live with his grandmother, and a character I had no idea was supposed to be his little brother, Martin. Burke comes to LA too for some reason, but he brings his experimental weapons along. Smuggling them in arcade games (because the movie was concerned it might not be quite dated enough), he distributes them maybe? But then there’s an auction in the end where he’s selling them? I don’t know what’s happening. Nothing good.
Anyway, John gets Sparky out of the veteran’s hospital and she and Uncle Joe (Richard Roundtree) help John build a suit of armor and a hammer to fight crime. They even set up a half-assed Batcave under Joe’s junkyard.
Burke kidnaps Sparky and draws the newly christened Steel into a trap. Unfortunately, for him, this only a trap the way locking yourself in a cage with a grizzly bear is technically dating. Steel just goes nuts on Burke (and Burke’s goons have even turned on him because he betrayed them five minutes earlier for no reason). Also, Sparky’s wheelchair is the Death Star.
Irons decides to retire after placing one final prank call to his old boss. The end.
Life-Changing Subtext: Vigilantism is the only way to bounce back after an accident.
Defining Quote: Nathaniel Burke: “Eat the hot dog. Don’t be one.” This is something a Zen monk might say after a massive head injury.
Standout Performance: Hill Harper plays a goon named “Slats” and it’s just… bizarre. He looks like he wandered into the costume trailer, put on everything left over from Streets of Fire and Can’t Stop the Music and emerged and was like, “This is how Hill Harper wishes to be on film.” And no one said shit. In his first scene, he’s wearing black leather hip-waders with some weird halter top, fingerless black leather opera gloves, a vest, and, oh yeah, a fucking eyepatch. He’s the only one in his gang who dresses like this too. I think that’s why he’s in charge. His boys figure if he’ll leave the house looking like that, he’s crazy enough to do anything. I’m beginning to think Harper designed the look for Jared Leto’s Juggaloker.
What’s Wrong: I refuse to call what O’Neal does “acting.” It’s close. He’s trying to mimic the words and feelings of human animals, but as it turns out, being good at acting takes time and practice, which he doesn’t have. Hell, he didn’t even practice basketball, and he was actually good at that. So, instead, you have what I’m going to dub “Shaqting.” While O’Neal is the prime perpetrator of this, you can see other Shaqtors of note with Brett Favre in There’s Something About Mary, whenever Condoleeza Rice was on 30 Rock, and, of course, everything Channing Tatum has been in.
Flash of Competence: The soundtrack instantly throws in a waka-chika, marking this as a blaxploitation superhero movie, and you know what? That’s actually a pretty good idea. Blaxploitation heroes are already pretty pulpy, so it makes a certain amount of sense to add superpowers. Granted, the logical choice is Marvel’s Luke Cage (who basically already is Super Shaft), but if you’re working in the DC stable, Steel is probably the next best thing. Richard Roundtree was brought on to do the handoff, blessing the transfer from 1970s street-level badasses to 1990s cheesy superheroics. He’s great too, but I don’t think Roundtree has it in him to be bad.
Best Scenes: Whenever Shaq gets to act — well, Shaqt — you’re in for a good time. When Burke sabotages the initial test in the beginning (because he’s eeeeeeeeeevil… and kinda dumb), and the wall collapses on Sparky, we get a great “nooooooooo!” moment from Shaq. It’s more of a “SPARKYYYYYYY!” Some prime Shaqting there.
Then when he picks her up from the Veterans’ Hospital. The idea is that she’s feeling sorry for herself because she’s paralyzed from the waist down now. Still, the entire scene is a handicapped woman repeatedly saying “No,” while a (much) larger man ignores her protests, picks her up, and carries her bodily out of the hospital while everyone claps. Now, to be fair, in a normal movie these two would be love interests, but this was 1997 so the idea of a black guy romancing a white woman was still out burning crosses.
Transcendent Moment: Free throws. Christ, the fucking free throws.
This will probably mystify modern audiences who never saw Shaq play, but he was bad at free throws. He was known for it. There were entire strategies based around making him shoot them.
So, because this movie desperately wants to avoid the timeless quality that afflicts your better superhero movies, they introduce a running gag of Steel missing free throws. Yeah, they actually come up with three excuses to have him shoot a free throw. It’s riveting. The final one of these is when Burke drops a grenade into a room where Steel is with Martin, and Steel has to throw the grenade back out through a small hole in the roof. And yes, this means that Steel’s entire character arc revolves around something the actor could not do.
Here’s the thing though. This grenade has the longest fuse in the history of explosives. Steel has time to think about it, pick it up, protest he can’t do it, then accept coaching from his little brother on proper shooting form. This thing took so long, I could have used a flashback partway through to remind me it was a live grenade. Maybe we could have seen what the grenade was like before it got to the island and met the Others. Or why the grenade got sent to prison and how its past informs its romance with Piper.
So about 45 minutes later, Shaq free throws the grenade away, and it explodes. And I’m left with a deep, empty feeling. I got attached to that grenade.
It’s hard to imagine a time before the superhero dominance of the box office. With flicks like Steel, it’s even harder to imagine it happening.