A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: February, 2013

“Steel” (1997)

"Steel" poster


1997 was a dark time for comic book cinema. Blade was a year off, X-Men was but a twinkle in Bryan Singer’s eye, and it would be nearly a decade before Christopher Nolan cleaned up after Batman & Robin‘s mess. But as if Joel Schumacher wasn’t bad enough, that summer delivered another super-dud in the form of Steel. I don’t need to remind you that this is a terrible flick — its microscopic box office returns, critical drubbing, and Nostalgia Critic videos have done that just fine. But seeing this for the first time since eighth grade, I can’t help but think Steel isn’t that bad. Oh, it’s basically a failure in everything it sets out to do, but its efforts to create a positive and uplifting superhero movie don’t go by completely unappreciated.

Mystifyingly allowed back into film after the Kazaam debacle, Shaquille O’Neal plays John Henry Irons, a soldier dedicated to seeking out nonviolent ways to win wars. He hopes to accomplish this through weapons that use sonic waves to stun the bad guys, but his power-mad partner Burke (Judd Nelson) has other plans. After causing a tragic incident, Burke high-tails it to the streets and starts mass-producing his own arsenals for the highest bidder. With no other way to stop this top-secret tech from reaching the global market, Irons creates his own suit of armor (with customary gadgets, naturally) and sticks it to the criminal element as a towering force for good nicknamed “Steel.”

Steel does a lot to make itself an easy target. It’s the peak of generic superhero action, with flat visuals encompassing an underwhelming, by-the-numbers plot. Sure, it cost peanuts compared to The Avengers‘ price tag, but what few supposedly rip-roaring set pieces there are lose their impact when set in a succession of drab, uninteresting locales. Though it cops a streetwise attitude, there’s a safe sameness to the script that extends to yet another plot where a beefcake goes up against a boring arms dealer. Writer/director Kenneth Johnson (of V fame) re-tooled a third-tier DC Comics character designed to ride on Superman’s coattails, and the best he could come up with was a huge dude in a suspiciously rubbery metal suit who can’t figure out that the psycho handing out these high-tech guns is the guy who helped him make them?

Lest I shuffle all the blame onto Johnson, let me say that Shaq’s broad shoulders bear the brunt of why Steel is a washout. He’s physically imposing, yes, but his performance comes with a shocking absence of any personality or charisma. Regardless of the script’s message, it’s simply impossible to be inspired by or root for a seven-foot automaton who blurts out lines with the passion of a coma patient. But Shaq’s toxic acting aside, I must credit Steel for the unconventional choices it makes. There are heartfelt attempts to be socially conscious and encourage its target audience to stay off the streets, which ties into Steel’s mostly harmless way of taking down thugs. Plus, it gets props for its most interesting character not being the fella on the poster, but rather Irons’ wheelchair-bound partner Sparks (Annabeth Gish), who gets the more fascinating arc and a chance to show her badass side.

It’s tempting to tear down Steel because its star can’t emote for beans, but it’s cut from a far more bearably corny cloth than, say, Superman III or Catwoman. Looking back, its modesty is even sort of charming, seeing how many comic-based tentpoles have adopted the “go big or go home” mindset since then. Steel isn’t due for a resurgence in popularity or critical re-evaluation anytime soon, but popping this in sure was one entertainingly doofy trip to the past.

“Stingray Sam” (2009)

"Stingray Sam" poster


The American Astronaut is one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen. Part alt-rock concert, part German expressionism, and part Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, it’s an experience that — love it or loathe it — is totally one of a kind. I’d wondered what writer/director/star Cory McAbee would brew up next, when, lo and behold, Stingray Sam was sprung upon me. Luckily, this is more of a companion piece to The American Astronaut than something working overtime to top its weirdness. It’s also a good deal on the lighter side, so if McAbee’s last intergalactic excursion struck you as skeezy, trust that Stingray Sam is a more innocent but inherently bizarre blast.

Presented in six, roughly ten-minute installments, Stingray Sam recounts the exploits of…well, Stingray Sam (McAbee). A reformed crook, Sam is content with his gig as a lounge singer on Mars, until adventure yet again sniffs him out. His old partner, the Quasar Kid (Crugie), moseys into his joint with a proposition that will completely wipe both of their checkered pasts clean. To do so, Sam and the Kid have to rescue a little girl (Willa Vy McAbee), the last on a male-dominated planet led by the genetically-designed, self-deluded Fredward (Joshua Taylor). With absolute freedom on the line, Sam takes to the stars, embarking on a journey fraught with such perils as sarcastic secretaries, tiny robot suits, and pregnant men.

Stingray Sam scales back on The American Astronaut‘s macabre overtones without sacrificing all things odd. Some Douglas Adams-style surreal humor is injected into an already silly story, which McAbee and his band/creative brain trust The Billy Nayer Show have based on old-school science fiction serials. The film puts a lot of thought into an essentially trivial and arbitrary mythos (outlined with the utmost seriousness by narrator David Hyde Pierce), but all these goofy details really add to the charm. It’s also understandably maddening, so if you’re driven bonkers by the deadpan humor and nonsense songs two episodes in, there’s little chance that you’ll be won over. But I had no problem going along with the quirky flow, which, lasting just an hour’s length, comes across as consistently fresh without overstaying its welcome.

As was the case with The American Astronaut, a great soundtrack is vital to Stingray Sam‘s persona. Each segment gets its own centerpiece tune, all of which are funny, distinct, and enhance the plot in their own ways. Highlights include Sam and the Quasar Kid running through a list of men birthed by other men, plus a nontraditional lullaby the guys sing to their pint-sized cargo. It’s all in good fun, but McAbee is never caught winking at the camera or making it seem like you shouldn’t be invested in what’s happening because the film isn’t 100 percent serious. McAbee, Crugie (yep, just Crugie), and the assorted supporting actors play their parts in earnest, not wholly over-the-top but not too relaxed, either.

Stingray Sam is niche to the core, wearing its independent roots on its sleeve. It’s messy, low-tech, and looks like it was cobbled together with whatever junk was in McAbee’s closet. But where less audacious pictures would become depressed by their lack of financial support, Stingray Sam is proud to be homebrewed, and its singularly strange taste is all the more savory for it.

“Sleepy Eyes of Death 3: Full Circle Killing” (1964)

"Sleepy Eyes of Death 3" poster

Don’t worry. I doubt it’s anything erotic enough for you to be worried about.

When Raizo Ichikawa played Nemuri Kyoshiro in the first of twelve Sleepy Eyes of Death adventures, it was clear that this was no ronin to be trifled with. A self-professed nihilist, he holds as much contempt for those perverting the samurai’s image as he does for those clinging to its most dated aspects. But for a swordsman of such supposedly jaded caliber, Kyoshiro sure lets himself get dragged into other peoples’ business in the series’ third entry, Full Circle Killing. Rather than play both sides of a conflict against one another, he basically swings his blade for the downtrodden here, giving us a decent chambara piece that’s just not the dark character study it should be.

Our tale begins with Kyoshiro, ever convinced that true honor is nonexistent, wandering into some class warfare. Sir Katagiri (Jun’ichiro Narita), the deranged offspring of a Shogunate concubine, has his mind set on rising through the political ranks as quickly (and violently) as possible. In addition to covertly slaying all other heirs standing in his path, Katagiri has taken to filleting local refugees as a means of sharpening his rare sword collection. But if Kyoshiro hates anything, it’s a prick with power, which he demonstrates by generally being a fly in the would-be Shogun’s ointment and making sure the vengeful villagers don’t do anything to get themselves killed. Soon, Kyoshiro has earned the ire of multiple psychos, from card-hurling assassins to scorned hookers, supplying his notorious Full-Moon Cut technique with plenty to slash through.

Full Circle Killing feels every bit like the lightweight filler chapter that turns up in any franchise setting out on an edgy path. This is only the third movie into Kyoshiro’s saga, and yet the next level in his development remains untouched by the end. I had hopes that this would become something like Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, wherein the “helpless” peasants and the bad guys coming after them would be on equally nasty footing. It’d sure tie into Kyoshiro’s philosophy about the world at large being no damn good, but nope, he sort of falls into defending your basic lot of colorfully simple folk — and in spite of the phenomenally dumb mistakes they regularly make, at that. I don’t know if it’s because of their bad decision-making skills or if Kyoshiro’s poker face is that great, but nothing about their encounters convinced me that he’d do anything but leave these bumpkins to dig their own graves.

Now Full Circle Killing isn’t an awful samurai movie, per se; it’s just not as befitting of the Sleepy Eyes of Death mantle as it needs to be. There’s a little discussion about Kyoshiro’s cavalier nature and how his legendary blade seems to thirst for violence, but it’s not developed in any deep or important way. He’s just another grumbling antihero with a heart of gold, which would be alright if he were starring in some other flick. Still, Ichikawa is in fine fighting shape, a sword-swinging James Bond who lobs off appendages one second and beds tea house honeys the next. He handles himself in battle like a boss (watch how he takes out some thugs on a giant set of steps without looking like he ever unsheaths his blade), and his opponents here are struck from the classic boo-hiss baddie mold. Katagiri is an entertainingly petulant punk with a back story so complex and interesting, you wish more had been done to connect it to the plot.

I’m sure I’ll revisit Full Circle Killing down the road. It’s a lark and an overall fun watch, but seeing the story’s pitch-black undertones go by untapped gets to be a tiring burden. But if you’re not as particular with the series and just want to see Kyoshiro cut henchmen to ribbons with cool detachment, I can’t say that Full Circle Killing comes up short.

(Click the following links for my reviews of Sleepy Eyes of Death 1: The Chinese Jade and Sleepy Eyes of Death 2: Sword of Adventure.)