The kind of drama that would have grabbed the imaginations of Golden Age televisiondirectors like Sidney Lumet, “Steel Toes” pits a progressive Jewish defense attorney against his own client, a reprobate neo-Nazi skinhead who’s confessed to murder. Earnest, literal-minded and not quite able to disguise its origins as a stage play by David Gow, pic boasts David Strathairn in a sizable and interesting lead role, plus enough talking points to earn plentiful slots at Jewish-themed fests and assured cable play.
The horrific crime committed by skinhead Michael (Andrew Walker) is shown upfront and over opening credits, leaving no doubt about his guilt. Drunk and looking for a tussle, Michael confronts an Indian cook in a Montreal alleyway and pummels him with his titular steel-toed boots. Though the cook’s fate remains unclear for a long while (eventually, it’s clear that he died), the drama’s concern is squarely with Michael and his court-appointed counsel, Danny (Strathairn), whose Jewish identity is at first a fetishistic point of interest for his client.
Gow’s script needn’t note that, while Michael depends on Danny, he would easily rub him out in an “ideal” neo-Nazi world. The key problem with “Steel Toes” is that Gow bluntly states this obvious irony anyway, eliminating any chance for auds to come to their own conclusions. What surely felt less pedantic onstage seems doubly didactic onscreen, despite a performance by Walker of exceptional physical intensity and an engrossing portrayal by Strathairn that tests Danny’s innate liberal values against the reality of his worst possible fears.Danny attempts to prep Michael for his preliminary court hearing, but meets obnoxious resistance from the start, including a show of force in the courtroom by a squad of steel-toed comrades. Despite Michael’s confession, Danny eventually convinces his client to put on the best possible defense so there’s no room for questioning that even punk skinheads can get a fair trial in Canada. This means the semi-illiterate Michael must do homework on his own case.
Large chunks of action are actually lengthy dialogues between counsel and defendant in Montreal’s city prison, with largely dialogue-free interludes to slightly open things up cinematically. These scenes sometimes involve Danny’s wife Anna (Marina Orsini), who eventually leaves Danny when he’s apparently too involved with the case for a home life; this seems grossly unfair on the face of it, given lack of onscreen evidence that Danny is an absentee hubby. Finale too predictably turns the tables on each character.
Co-directors Gow and Mark Adam (doubling as lenser) make the wise decision (a la Golden Age Lumet) against a lot of match-shot cutting in favor of generous camera staging in jailhouse scenes, allowing Strathairn and Walker more time and space to play off each other. Physical jail space is lent menacing grimness by production designer Perri Gorrera.