He’s the nicest superhero on the block … he’s Steel, the man of, well, steel. In sharp contrast to recent screen crime crusaders, “Steel” is strictly kids’ stuff. Its protagonist is good-natured, wholesome, devoid of moral flaws and acutely civic-conscious. But good intentions aren’t good enough, and this Shaq attack is too broad and episodic to attract anything other than the most undemanding crowd. Passably entertaining, pic possesses only modest commercial prospects, even on video, with future revenue coming from scrap metal salvage rather than sequels.
Hoopster Shaquille O’Neal comes to the role of John Henry Irons with the requisite size requirements. He’s part of an Army science unit developing apocalyptic-force weaponry. And while he maintains a balanced perspective on the destructive gizmos, fellow group member Lt. Nathaniel Burke (Judd Nelson) is prone to push the edge of the envelope with the prototypes. That leads to tragic consequences as the reverberation from the blast of a test results in the death of a U.S. senator and the crippling of Lt. Susan Sparks (Annabeth Gish), the third point in the scientific trinity.
Burke is dismissed from the service and Irons decides not to reup, telling friends he’s out of the business because “it’s better for my soul.” Both head for Los Angeles, Irons to rejoin his family and better the community, Burke to hook up with arms merchants.
The two men are destined to be adversaries, and the activities of the short one will force the tall one to go back on his anti-violence vow.
Writer-director Kenneth Johnson provides a tinny story and a leaden pace for his tarnished titan. There’s a coziness and simplicity to the production that would be better served on TV. Cinema-size, it comes off as corny, antiquated and slightly cheesy.
When Burke equips street kids with state-of-the-art firepower, Irons is conveniently in the neighborhood of their bank job. No dummy, he realizes that only an evil mind like his former Army collaborator could be behind such an act. He reluctantly goes back into combat, enlisting Sparks, who’s wilting in a V.A. hospital, and Uncle Joe (Richard Roundtree), a latter-day Fred Sanford junkyard operator who can turn scrap into sophisticated machinery.
The new troika works to fashion a costumed crusader equipped with dazzling anti-terrorist gadgetry. Dubbed Steel, he resembles a considerably less fluid version of Robocop. As he lumbers through the mean streets of L.A., there’s never any doubt that good will vanquish evil, because it’s nicer.
O’Neal is an affably game screen presence who’s ill-served by his suit of armor, which impedes his naturalness. There is an almost insane effort to slow him down that extends to a “running” gag in which he’s depicted as a basketball klutz.
Nelson delivers an all-too-typical comic-strip maniac who embraces ruthlessness as both the means and end. He is simply an extreme in an ensemble of capable actors trapped in one-dimensional roles.
Technically proficient, the film focuses on doodads and stunts and ambles along in a good-natured fashion. Youngsters will find it a diverting amusement, but adults attending will have to grit their teeth and “Steel” their nerves.