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MOVIE REVIEWS : 'Steel Dawn': Iron-Age Concept in Film Making

November 06, 1987|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

One mysterious thing about "Steel Dawn" (citywide) is its title. Are the makers of this post-apocalyptic "Road Warrior" rip-off predicting the dawn of a new Survivalist Age? A steelier one? Are they referring to the metallic doodads that adorn the landscape--without any visible source of supply? Whatever the title's significance, the movie is atrocious. The plot alone makes your mind reel.

In some distant year, after the bomb has dropped and civilization has shriveled away, a wanderer--named, appropriately, Nomad (Patrick Swayze)--appears in the desert, battling off curious little monsters that wear burlap garments, bite and burrow in the sand dunes. Later, Nomad suddenly meets his wise old samurai teacher, Cord (John Fujioka), only to watch him massacred in a bar by the crazed, swaggering, braggart bandit, Sho (Christopher Neame).

Vowing vengeance, Nomad tracks Sho to a little town--where a beleaguered young widow in crimp hairdo and designer jeans, Kasha (Lisa Niemi), is battling over water rights with the sneeringly villainous Damnil (Anthony Zerbe) and his associates. Perhaps only the lack of registries and railroads prevents these cads from demanding the deed to the ranch and tying her to the tracks.

There's also a dog, a little boy, a brawny, good-hearted ranch foreman and a chase across the sand in some rickety cars propelled by what look like steel sails (are they the steel dawn?), followed by a duel to the death with axes.

Obviously director Hool--the creative force behind the Chuck Norris "Missing in Action" series--and writer Doug Lefler are trying to mix up "The Road Warrior" with classic American Western structures. But, unlike "Road Warrior" director George Miller, they haven't imagined a new landscape--or the characters who might plausibly inhabit it.

Instead, they've borrowed feebly from "The Searchers" and "Shane," festooned their script with bad monosyllabic dialogue, telegraphed plot twists and allowed witless anachronisms--like Damnil's horseback gang, or the towering wooden structures and bizarre sky-blue plastic strips that decorate the town, as if for a centennial celebration. Then they've dumped everything down in the so-called Hamib Desert of Southwest Africa, a barren wasteland, where the sun looks hot enough to bake brains into madness.

Hool directs all this so lethargically you might suspect he's gone missing in action himself. Lefler, an ex-storyboard artist, seems to have left his story on a board somewhere, perhaps one festooned with blue plastic strips. As for the actors: These poor people were licked before they started. Most interesting about "Steel Dawn" (MPAA rated R, for sex and violence) are the Hamib Desert dunes. As they lie in the sun--ancient, massive, shifting like a slow sea--they're the liveliest things in the movie.

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