Starring Robert Taylor, J.A. Preston, Roy Brocksmith, Joan Chen, R. Lee Ermey
Directed by Christopher Crowe
Pretend for a moment that you are a television executive and someone sitting in your office begins pitching you the following premise:
The not-too-distant future and the world has gone to hell. An honest cop’s son is inadvertently killed by a ruthless arms dealer targeting him. Cop spends the next year trying to find out who did it while haunted by strange nightmares involving his son’s slaying, his kid’s favorite toy robot dinosaur, and a mysterious man who speaks in cryptic messages. Cop soon meets the old man from his dreams and discovers him to be an enigmatic time traveler seeking those that possess a power giving them the ability to manifest things from their subconscious mind. The mysterious man teaches him how to use his power, and by uncovering the identity of his son’s killers, he will finally unlock his “gift” in the form of his son’s toy robot dinosaur transformed into an unstoppable, 40-foot, flame-snorting, car-crunching, mechanical monster that takes a bite out of crime in ways McGruff the Crime Dog only dreamed.
Your reaction is:
A) Throw the idiot out of your office.
B) Laugh at the moron and then throw him out of your office.
C) Call security and have them toss this nut out of your office for you.
D) Greenlight it as feature-length pilot for a potential weekly TV series.
If you answered D, you must have been an NBC television executive in 1992.
From the combined forces of the network that gave us “My Mother the Car,” “Manimal,” “Misfits of Science,” “Mann & Machine,” “The Highwayman,” “Baywatch,” the “XFL,” and a very short-lived comedy about a talking orangutan with a 256 IQ that gets a job as a consultant in Washington, DC, and the producers of certain motion picture entitled Mac & Me, sprang forth the televised experiment in epic failure that would come to be known as Steel Justice.
Your preposterous potential television series boasts a futuristic setting, time travel, superpowers, and a giant robot dinosaur; yet, the best title you can come up with is the uber generic Steel Justice? Doomed from the get-go, I tell you.
Now just in case you think I am making this up, here’s the NBC TV commercial promoting the April 5, 1999, one-and-only airing of Steel Justice.
The sole reason that Steel Justice even came into existence was because someone at NBC got sold on the idea of building an entire television series around Robosaurus. For those unaware, Robosaurus is a fixture on the monster truck and car show circuit even to this day. Here are a few facts about Robosaurus taken directly from the official Robosaurus website:
- An electrohydromechanical creature of prehistoric proportions
- Stands 40 feet tall (twice as tall as Tyrannosaurus Rex)
- Weighs 60,000 pounds (over 3 times heavier than Tyrannosaurus Rex)
- Lifts 4,000 pound cars up higher than a 5 story building
- Breathes 20 feet fingers of flame that incinerate paint and plastic
- Crushes cars with 24,000 pounds of gripping force
- Bites and rips out roofs and doors using stainless steel teeth
- Throws the mangled morsels to the ground
In adapting Robosaurus for either the big or small screen, you have to overcome the fatal cinematic flaw of it being a bit on the slow moving side and rather limited in what it can do, and mind you, this was 1992 before computer effects could be used to overcompensate for its shortcomings. I’ve seen it in person and can assure you it does not move with the gracefulness of a Transformers Dinobot or the speed of “Knight Rider’s” K.I.T.T. While definitely a neat sight to behold, Robosaurus remains a big, slow, clunky, metal monstrosity that requires a full team of engineers and controllers just to make it do the simplest things. Surprisingly, this would prove to be the least of Steel Justice’s fatal flaws.
Steel Justice kicks off with a dream sequence, so we’re already off to a really bad start. An old black Jedi explains how he’s a special kind of time traveler (as opposed to all those non-special time travelers?) who zips about history seeking the rare few people that possess “the gift,” a magical mental power that allows that person to “transform” things. We then see him teach a Celt how to turn a rock in his hand into Stonehenge. Right then, our humdrum hero cop abruptly awakens from a deep sleep.
Enter future cop David Nash, played by an actor whose career pretty much went nowhere and it’s easy to see why. The guy gives a lifeless performance in a film overloaded with dull performances. The only thing noteworthy about him is that he sounded like he was wrestling with his natural accent and losing. One moment he sounds like David Nash, all-American cop, and two words later he would sound like Davey Jones of The Monkees.
Nash walks the streets when his own voiceover narration kicks in. Or, perhaps we’ll find out in a few minutes that this is actually part of someone else’s dream. The filmmakers were shooting for some sort of old-time noir feel as this will be the first of many voiceovers of Nash speaking directly to us as if he were a 1940’s gumshoe. The decision to go the Mickey Spillane route with a story about a futuristic cop taught by an eccentric time traveler that he has the power to magically conjure forth a giant robot dinosaur from the nether regions of his brain to help him fight crime simply boggled my mind. That sort of technique may have worked fine for Blade Runner, but this is not Blade Runner. It isn’t even Highlander 2: The Quickening.
Nash’s voiceover goes on to tell us that he lives in this nameless futuristic city/backlot set populated by extras dressed in tacky, pastel-colored, rainwear ensembles that appear to have been picked up at the Krushgroove estate sale. Nash informs us that the loss of the ozone layer has led to environmental catastrophe. We’re just going to have to take his word for it because this terrifying reality is never really visualized. Nash informs us that fossil fuels are all but gone and yet the city has no shortage of neon bright lights and people driving around in ugly, old, junky, European automobiles. Getting crunched by a giant mechanized T-Rex would be a blessing for these hideous rust buckets. Nash then informs us crime is out on control. It must be out of control in another part of the city that they didn’t have the time or money to film because we don’t see a ton of crime in this movie. A year earlier, criminals aiming to kill Nash did accidentally blow up his son with a rocket launcher, dramatized by way of yet another dream sequence.
Hey, kids watching at home tuning in to see some cool giant robot dinosaur action, having fun yet?
Nash now introduces us one-by-one to his police co-workers for reasons I cannot fathom. Are we supposed to care about the token Latino detective that appears in like only three scenes? Are we supposed to be interested in the token black cop that dresses like Sonny Crocket and has like three lines of dialogue in the whole freaking movie? Only two of the characters we’re introduced to here have any real dialogue and only one of them (his female partner) figures into the plot at all. R. Lee Ermey even gets wasted in a 45 second cameo as his gruff police chief.
We are now all of five minutes into the movie which thus far has been composed of a voiceover prologue that was actually a dream sequence, about a minute’s worth of actual dialogue, and another voiceover narrative designed to introduce us to this futuristic world and a few of its inhabitants even though we will soon come to learn that about 95% of what he’s told us will prove to be completely irrelevant to plot.
So, with that out of the way, let me quickly summarize what happens for the next 75 minutes.
This was supposed to be the movie pilot for a potential sci-fi action adventure series and yet there is very little sci-fi and virtually no action. Instead we’re treated to repetitive dream sequences and even more repetitive conversations. I think Nash had the same exact conversation about his son’s death with about four different characters. When Nash finally meets the time traveler they go on to repeat the same exact discussion regarding Nash’s “gift” at least three or four times.
When Nash is not working the beat or dreaming in prologues he’s reliving his son’s death over and over and over. And when he’s at home and not dreaming in prologues or reliving his son’s death over and over and over, he’s watching home movies of his dead son, all of which revolve around the two of them building a toy robot dinosaur. And when he’s not staring at a home movie of the two of them building that toy robot dinosaur, he’s staring at the toy robot dinosaur that he now keeps in the closet so that it’s nearby whenever he needs the inspiration for yet another dreary flashback.
Hey, kids watching at home tuning in to see some cool giant robot dinosaur action, having fun yet?
Futurism, time travel, lucid dreaming, mental powers, spiritual possession, a giant fire-breathing mechanical dinosaur: all of this fantastical raw material to work with and yet the most inventive thing they could come up with was still just having Robosaurus crush and flame-broil the bad guy’s car at the end. Worst case scenario: Steel Justice should have achieved a Sharknado level of ludicrousness. That would require a sense of humor.
Believe it or not, the show about the giant robot dinosaur that fights crime is played with a morose seriousness.
Nowhere is the show’s lack of self-awareness more detrimental than with the introduction of the villainous gun-running, kid-killing, underworld godfather known only as “The Colonel.” They seemed to be aiming for a menacing Sydney Greenstreet-type crime boss yet they cast an actor that looks and sounds like the bad guy from an Ernest P. Worrell movie. He’s almost unintentionally laughable – almost.
There’s a brief dinner scene where Joan Chen appears on a date with Nash. Nothing comes of it romantically, probably because he spends most of this short scene talking about his dead son. He then just up and ditches her after he spots the mysterious man from his dreams playing saxophone on stage at the club. Pretty sure she wouldn’t be returning for future episodes had it gone to series because those two things sounded like instant relationship killers to me.
Enter Jeremiah J. Jonas Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt or whatever the hell his overly long stupid name was AKA our time traveling, dream-invading, “gift”-seeking, Ramirez to Nash’s Connor MacLeod. At no point in any of their endless discussions will Jonas ever even attempt to explain the origins of “the gift,” why Nash possesses it, exactly where he hails form, how he’s able to travel through time, how he knows who has this power, or what the hell was going through the minds of the people responsible for making this god-awful movie.
After nearly 80-minutes of achieving lameness on a spiritual level…
Hey, kids watching at home tuning in to see some cool giant robot dinosaur action, wake up – it’s finally about to happen!
On second thought, go back to bed. You’d think the much-delayed appearance of Robosaurus snorting flames, scaring fleeing bad guys, and munching on a car would be a ridiculously fun sight to behold. You would be wrong.
Nash and Jonas crash The Colonel’s major arms deal conveniently staged at a building with a huge spacious area in front of it except for a gimpy chain link fence and a small guard tower that looks like it was built for a children’s playground. This wide open area sure will come in real handy if a 40-foot, flame-snorting, mechanized dragon were to show up looking to wreck a fence and a dinky guard tower.
The writer of this debacle chooses this moment for the two of them to engage in yet another mind-numbing discussion of “the gift,” only this time Jonas finally suggests Nash actually try using the damn power. Might as well; there’s only about ten minutes left in the movie. Jonas tells Nash to focus on the one thing his son loved more than anything else: the Robosaurus toy.
Really? The one thing that the young deceased Nash loved more than anything else in the world was that dang toy robot dinosaur? What does this say about David Nash that he doesn’t even get top billing in his own son’s affection?
Just imagine if instead of the toy Robosaurus his son’s most beloved possession had been his baseball glove? Would a giant baseball glove have appeared and crawled around capturing bad guys in its mitt? Would the movie been titled Mitt Justice? What if he really loved the game Uno Attack? Would a 40-foot UNO card dispenser have materialized and begun firing giant, flaming, UNO cards that decapitate the bad guys? And what if Nash’s kid was a devout Christian? Would a gigantic flame-snorting Jesus suddenly appear to smite the forces of evil? Actually, all of those might have proven to be more entertaining.
No clarification if Robosaurus came directly from Nash’s mind or if he telepathically teleported the toy from his home closet and psychically super-sized it because for all this movies endless explanations the one things it’s always short on is actual explanations.
The bad guys, despite being military arms dealers, never think to use some of the heavy weaponry they have stockpiled on the robo dino. Robosaurus scatters some bad guys, knocks some stuff over, snorts some fire into the air, and rolls right up to the building as close as it can and rams one of its giant mechanical claws through a window knocking an armed goon over a second story railing. The goon’s DNA must have been composed of nitroglycerine as the impact of his crash landing triggers a series of unexplained explosions. Robosaurus grabs another goon by his jacket and dangles him in mid-air as Jonas cackles in delight. The Colonel attempts to escape in an already beat-up limo just so Robosaurus can do his monster truck show routine on it before vanishing back to the unused part of Nash’s brain from which dreams hail.
For reasons that I am 100% positive even the filmmakers could never ever adequately explain, the wreckage of the destroyed limo vanishes along with Robosaurus. This means that not only does Nash have a giant robot dinosaur lurking within the nether regions of his psyche; he’s also now using it as a morgue for those that Robosaurus has killed in the name of steel justice.
As a final kick to the skull, despite dozens of witnesses to the Robosaurus rampage the police chief dismisses their eyewitness accounts as crazy talk. That dreaded swamp gas strikes again!
I must say it is just a tad awe-inspiring to watch something in which virtually every creative decision was the absolute wrong decision. I feel like we were all somewhat cheated Steel Justice did not get picked up for series just to see how many more wrongheaded creative decisions could have been before it got cancelled after only three episodes.
An amusing footnote to this nonsense: Several years back I actually pitched a Syfy producer an idea for a Maximum Overdrive/Killdozer-esque flick based around Robosaurus coming to life, going berserk and killing people. They liked my idea so much there were enthusiastic discussions with the Robosaurus people. Syfy higher ups abruptly pulled the plug on the project with no explanation. Syfy is owned by NBC Universal. I’m guessing someone at NBC remembered the Steel Justice fiasco and wanted nothing to do with anything Robosaurus ever again. Probably for the best.