Steel Dawn (1987)
Patrick Swayze (Nomad), Lisa Niemi (
Ke$ha Kasha), Anthony Zerbe (Damnil), Christopher Neame ( Sting Sho), Brion James ( Suburban Commando Tark), John Fujioka (Cord), Brett Hool ( Anakin Skywalker Jux), Arnold Vosloo (Makker),
War/Societal Breakdown (Nuclear war is mentioned in the promotional material, but never in the movie)
“They call him Nomad. A man with a home, without a past. A new breed of warrior trained in teh arts of swordsmanship and hand to hand combat, romaing the vast desrt wastelands in a post-nuclear age… in a time when laws are useless and water is more precious than blood. When Nomad’s old friend and mentor is brutally slain by the notorious swordsman Sho, Nomad heads for the desolate valley of Meridian to avenge his death. There he meets the beautiful Kasha, one of the many farmers being terrorized by the sinister warlord Damnil. The desperate farmers appoint Nomad the Peacemaker, charaged with protecting them against Damnil’s diabolical plot to control all the water in the valley. But as Nomad begins to help Kasha’s farm, thwarting AADamnil’s carefully laid plans, he becomes the target of Damnil’s savage army, face-to-face with the bloodthirsty Sho, fighting for revenge, honor… and love.” – VHS box synopis”They call him Nomad. A man with a home, without a past. A new breed of warrior trained in teh arts of swordsmanship and hand to hand combat, romaing the vast desrt wastelands in a post-nuclear age… in a time when laws are useless and water is more precious than blood. When Nomad’s old friend and mentor is brutally slain by the notorious swordsman Sho, Nomad heads for the desolate valley of Meridian to avenge his death. There he meets the beautiful Kasha, one of the many farmers being terrorized by the sinister warlord Damnil. The desperate farmers appoint Nomad the Peacemaker, charaged with protecting them against Damnil’s diabolical plot to control all the water in the valley. But as Nomad begins to help Kasha’s farm, thwarting AADamnil’s carefully laid plans, he becomes the target of Damnil’s savage army, face-to-face with the bloodthirsty Sho, fighting for revenge, honor… and love.” – VHS box synopis
Of all the men considered to be action heroes of the 1980s and 1990s, Patrick Swayze may have the strangest career of all. Swayze had had the usual TV show guest spots and made-for-TV movies, even a standout in 1983’s adaptation of The Outsiders, but it was John Milius’ Red Dawn which cemented him into the role of a square jawed badass.
While follow-ups to Millius’ scaremongering love letter to patriotism weren’t exactly in the same wheelhouse, they felt like the kind of thing an up-and-coming action star might do until his own Kickboxer, Terminator, or First Blood came along. So I imagine that moviegoers were genuinely surprised when Swayze’s next big hit turned out to be playing as the love interest to his Red Dawn co-star Jennifer Grey in Emile Ardolino’s Dirty Dancing.
I’m unclear as to whether this was a conscious move on the part of Swayze (who studied both dancing and kung fu) or just a path that he got put onto, but those two movies basically wrote the tone for the rest of his career. He’d bounce back and forth between dramas and action films or thrillers, sometimes doing one of each in the same year. This lead to a sort of weird cinematic world of parallel Patrick Swayzes where one is playing a bank robbing surfer and Pecos Bill while another is having dramatic roles and starring in stuff like To Wong Foo. The crisis on infinite Swayzes would come to a head when the Swayzes converged in Ghost, a movie that has become too much of a punchline thanks to a hokey love scene for people to remember just how fucking weird it really is.
I’m not trying to harp on gender roles or shore up the fragility of masculinity here, I’m just trying to paint a picture. I want you, dear readers, to put yourself in the heads of the famously prejudiced studios of yesteryear and see how a man who represented a “sissified” version of manliness would even be considered to be the lead in Predator 2 or Kurt Russell’s character in Tango and Cash (he filmed Ghost and Roadhouse instead.)
Now imagine a few years later, being a studio head and picking the man who played a drag queen to be your badass trucker replacement for Kevin Sorbo in Black Dog. Swayze was the one progressive blind-spot in the otherwise meat-headed world of action films and while I’ve never much cared for any of his starring roles in them (except Black Dog, weirdly enough) I respect that he managed to slip through the cracks for so long.
Steel Dawn came out before Dirty Dancing had a chance to even cool off. I think the studio was hoping to capitalize on Swayze’s new star power but it just caused the movie to be forgotten even faster and it was buried on a video store shelf with all the other Mad Max knockoffs that were flooding the market at the time, destined to be dug up one day and rediscovered as a pop culture oddity after movies like Roadhouse and Point Break turned Johnny Castle into the next Van Damme.
We open on our hero, Nomad (a name that is only given in the promotional material and the end credits, obviously more of a descriptive term) doing a handstand atop a sand dune. Suddenly Tusken Raiders spring forth from the sands and he dispatches them with sword and kung fu as they grunt like pigs and burrow in and out of the sand. While this five minutes isn’t terribly original, it manages to pump the audience up for what’s to come. Unfortunately this scene is better than the entire rest of the movie and though I’ve seen it 3 times now, it never fails to fool me into thinking that this film is going to be a lot more entertaining than it actually is. After Nomad beats the mutants, he walks off and we never see anything like them ever again.
Nomad meets his old squad leader/sensei Cord (John Fujioka) and they go to a tavern to talk about the Cord’s new assignment as a peacekeeper in a little nowhere town that’s having issues with water rights. Nomad finds that he’s paralyzed by an apparently poisoned drink and then a group of armed men storm in led by a lazy Feyd Rautha imitation (the actor even kind of resembles Sting) with a goofy mullet wig. Sting and Cord fight, but Sting cheats by using a retractable blade on his knee pad and knifes Cord in the groin until he dies.
Nomad gets up and walks off into the desert where he befriends a dog that seems like it might be important later but won’t be. He stumbles onto the farmstead of Kasha (played by Swayze’s real-life wife Lisa Niemi) who appears to have the same post-apocalyptic hair stylist as Grendel’s mom.
Kasha offers Nomad a job as a farm worker on her water plantation. Nomad plants bushes and pals around with Kasha’s young son Jux, played by Brett Hool. I can’t find any information on the subject, but using my sense of deduction I’m going to assume that Brett Hool is Lance Hool’s son because the kid is an atrocious actor, he’s the prototype for Star Wars Episode 1‘s Anakin Skywalker in characterization and flat line-reading. Fortunately, unlike Anakin, Jux doesn’t have much in the way of lines so we don’t have to endure him that much and he just kind of fades into the background.
Nomad also has to deal with Kasha’s farm manager Tark, played by Brion James at his Hulk Hogan-ist. I’ve seen James play a lot of heavies in movies but he always comes across as more scrawny and weaselish than imposing, so I find it weird how convincingly the man plays a large muscular guy. Tark is a big dumb oaf with a good heart who appears to be carrying a torch for Kasha, and gets infinitely frustrated by how she falls so easily for Nomad. He’s easily the most complex character in the movie, though that’s not saying much at all.
I wish I could summarize more but the fact is that not a whole lot happens in this movie. Kasha has a secret aquifer under her land that she wants to use to water the valley but she has to first find a way to put a stop to greedy landowner, and The Ghost of Anthony Hopkins Future, Damnill (Anthony Zerbe) and his evil henchmen (most notably a pre-Mummy Arnold Vosloo), there’s a lot of back and forth that goes nowhere until Sting shows back up for his inevitable showdown with Nomad. That happens, Damnill is never a credible threat, and Nomad rides off into the sunset because this script is basically just Shane with a dash of science fiction sprinkled on top.
Steel Dawn is not as bad of a movie as history makes it out to be, but it has a weird effect on your mind when you watch it. Each time I watch this movie I like it more than I expect, but the longer I think about it afterward the more I hate it. It’s really just a series of stock-Western cliches with post-apocalyptic trappings and some sword fightin.
The movie is just Shane with the most boring aspects of The Road Warrior, Star Wars, and Dune thrown on to make it seem more exciting. It’s not an especially long movie but not a whole lot happens, so it’s a bit of a slog to get through and without the performances of Swayze and Brion James there wouldn’t be much to latch onto here.
This movie does show why Swayze was such a credible action star. He’s genuinely skilled at doing fight scenes but also genuinely skilled at acting and that’s a rare find. His easy-going southern boy charm lends him an air of toughness that complements his peaceful-hero demeanor and though Nomad isn’t given much more than a stock-character story (he is a man with no name, after all) he comes off a lot more interesting than he really should.
The film has two villains; Damnil the greedy land owner and Sho the rival swordsman, as well as Arnold Vosloo’s miniboss henchman Makker, but all the villains put together don’t even own up to one legitimate character. They’re just seperate aspects of one person used for whatever the movie needs at the moment.
The fight scenes are well-choreographed and are probably the best thing about the movie. There’s a little world building going on but it’s vague at best and barely worth bringing up. Despite having been married for years prior to the filming of this movie, Swayze and Niemi have no onscreen chemistry. Arnold Vosloo and Brion James are the only members of the supporting cast that manage to be memorable or interesting.
The cinematography by George Tirl (who would go on to lense Left Behind: The Movie) is beautiful, particularly in long shots where he’s allowed to really show off the desolate majesty of the Namibian desert where the movie was shot. Even the fight scenes and night shots are well-done, only serving as a sharp contrast to how lazy the actual film itself is.
Steel Dawn is perfectly serviceable but it’s forgettable and much too dull to be a must-watch to even the most die-hard of doomsday fans. It’s a moderately interesting novelty for those wanting to see what Patrick Swayze was busy doing between Johnny Castle and James Dalton but you’d be better off watching either of those movies than this one.
NEXT TIME ON DOOMSDAY REELS
“You think this is a safari, bitch?”
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