Today, I’m going to take a look at the 1997 Shaquille O’Neal superhero movie, Steel.
The plot of Steel is summarized on IMDb as follows:
John Henry Irons designs weapons for the military. When his project to create weapons that harmlessly neutralize soldiers is sabotaged, he leaves in disgust. When he sees gangs are using his weapons on the street, he uses his brains and his Uncle Joe’s junkyard know-how to fight back, becoming a real man of “steel.”
The general story and inspiration for Steel is based on the DC comic book character John Henry Irons, who goes by the monikers of “Steel” and “Man of Steel.” Irons was created by Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove in 1993, as part of a story that follows the death of Superman, and the rise of a handful of replacements to take up his mantle.
Steel was written and directed by Kenneth Johnson, who also created the television shows V and The Incredible Hulk, and directed a handful of episodes of JAG and the film Short Circuit 2.
Aside from famed basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, the cast of Steel includes Annabeth Gish (Mystic Pizza, Nixon, The X-Files), Judd Nelson (The Breakfast Club, New Jack City, Little Hercules in 3D), Richard Roundtree (Brick, Shaft, Maniac Cop, Shaft In Africa), Ray J (Mars Attacks, The Sinbad Show), Charles Napier (The Blues Brothers, The Silence of the Lambs, Dinocroc), and Hill Harper (The Skulls).
One of Steel‘s primary producers was music legend Quincy Jones, who most recently popped back into the news following a bizarre and candid interview with Vulture, in which he claimed, among other things, that Marlon Brando was so promiscuous that he would “fuck a mailbox.” Jones was apparently a big fan of the Steel character in DC comics, partially because he represented a “good role model” for children:
“I have seven children and, as a parent, I’m really aware of the lack of role models for today’s kids. It’s really left a hole in the world, and I don’t mean just for black kids. Their perspective on the future has changed for the worse, and I hate seeing young people who don’t believe in the future. Steel — and I don’t want to use that word `superhero,’ because he doesn’t fly or anything like that — represents a role model. Let’s just call him a `super human being.'”
-Quincy Jones on producing Steel
Steel‘s cinematographer was Mark Irwin – one of David Cronenberg’s frequent collaborators – who has shot such films as Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly, Old School, Osmosis Jones, Passenger 57, RoboCop 2, Class of 1999, Dark Angel, and Scanners.
The editor for the film was John F. Link, an experienced cutter whose works include Die Hard, Predator, Commando, The Mighty Ducks, and Road House, to name a few.
The music for Steel was composed by Mervyn Warren, a five-time Grammy Award winner and a 10-time Grammy Award nominee, whose other scores include The Wedding Planner, Honey, Joyful Noise, and A Walk To Remember.
Shaq had to complete all of his scenes for the film in the space of five weeks, squeezing between his obligations to the Los Angeles Lakers training camp and the 1996 Summer Olympics. Despite his best efforts, he wound up earning a Golden Raspberry nomination for Worst Actor for his troubles.
Shaq also contributed to the film’s soundtrack, collaborating with Ice Cube, B Real, Peter Gunz, and KRS-One on the rap single “Men of Steel.” The song even managed to chart on the Billboard Hot 100.
Steel was made on an estimated $16 million production budget, on which it managed to take in just over $1.7 million in its lifetime theatrical run, making it a huge financial failure. However, its financial disappointment paled next to its critical reception: nearly everyone disliked Steel, audiences and critics alike. Currently, it holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 12% from critics and 15% from audiences, along with an unenviable IMDb user rating of 2.8/10 (placing it on the cusp of breaking into the IMDb’s infamous “Bottom 100”).
One of the most popular criticisms I have seen of Steel is that the casting of Shaq was the movie’s fatal flaw. Obviously, Shaq is no actor, that is certainly not in dispute. However, to place all of the blame for this film’s failure on him is a mistake. Even if Shaq were not present, there is something fundamentally wrong about this film. And, honestly, I thought Shaq had some brief flashes of charm throughout the movie – film reviewer Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle even described the performance as “appealing…breathes much needed large life into a tolerable stinker of a film.” Considering the limitations Shaq had for preparing for the film, I don’t think anyone could reasonably ask for more than a mediocre performance from a non-actor in a leading role, and Shaq at least achieved that.
As far as the Shaq casting decision goes, while he isn’t a natural in front of the camera, Shaq is definitely charismatic, so I can understand the producers taking a gamble on his performance for this film. More importantly, when it comes to casting, you couldn’t find a better physical fit for this part – if you separate the image from the context of the movie, Shaq in a suit of armor carrying a massive hammer is pretty awesome, in a way that most still of film superheroes aren’t.
Speaking of the suit, I think that it is one of the few positives of the film: it has a tangible grit to it that divorces it from the prevailing superhero images of the time. Also, as mentioned, I think it looks pretty believably imposing on Shaq.
Now, let’s move on to the real problem with Steel: the screenplay. Not only does it provide such memorable dialogue highlights as “smoke you like a blunt,” but there is a shocking amount of profanity included throughout for a film that, for the most part, has the tone and execution of a family comedy. I’m not sure if this was the result of rewrites, but this screenplay either has no concept of its intended audience, or the director unsuccessfully tried to execute a very different vision for the story than the one provided by the screenplay.
Overall, Steel is at once one of the most cliched superhero movies, while also being one of the most bizarre. The massive tone issues, Shaq’s unease in front of the camera, and the cheap-looking production values all serve to make a weird soup of a movie. Unfortunately, I didn’t find it to be a terribly entertaining concoction – this is more of something to briefly gawk at and move on. As far as a recommendation goes, I think Shaq film completists and 90’s nostalgia junkies might be obligated to seek this out. For everyone else, however, I think this is safe to pass on. This isn’t a hidden Black Panther that has been lost to the ages.