The Archivist #79: Shaq and Dr. J Hit Rim Shots in STEEL and THE FISH THAT SAVED PITTSBURGH

Exploring the Warner Archive with NBA Legends Julius Erving and Shaquille O’Neal

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and Blu-ray discs (which, unlike the DVDs, are factory pressed rather than burned). Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!

With the Super Bowl behind us (congrats, Eagles!), the world of professional sports now turns its attention to the basketball court. This week on The Archivist, we’re looking at a couple of box office bombs starring huge NBA stars. Both films are arguably cult classics thanks to their famous leading men and cheesy execution, and are available on MOD DVD from the Warner Archive.

The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979)

The late 70s were a strange and turbulent time for pro basketball. The ABA was grafted into the rival NBA (an event which serves as the backdrop of the Will Ferrell comedy Semi-Pro), and it was the end of an era that would officially close when a new generation of superstars rose up in the mid-80s and reinvented the game.

It’s in this era that we are introduced The Pittsburgh Pythons, a failing pro team with only a couple decent players, led by lone superstar Moses Guthrie (real life NBA superstar Julius “Dr. J” Erving). The team’s young ballboy Tyrone devises a nutty plan to save the team, inviting fortune-telling astrologer Mona Mondieu (Stockard Channing) to divine the team’s success.

The team holds tryouts to reassemble their roster, not of the best basketball talents, but of Pisces — eventually reeling in a ragtag group of misfits and weirdos who all possess the same astrological sign. This concentration of mojo allows Mona to plot their success as team astrologer, much to the chagrin of their sidelined head coach.

Renaming themselves the Pittsburgh Pisces, the team kicks of a mid-season Cinderella streak that catapults them into the playoffs. Ostensibly a comedy, the outrageously titled and plotted film clearly sets out to be a wacky, high-concept farce — but while certainly wildly silly, it’s rarely actually funny.

Directed by Gilbert Moses (whose only other feature directorial credit is the beloved Willie Dynamite), it’s certainly a picture of 70s craziness, and the famous soundtrack packed with funk, soul, and disco is perhaps its largest and most lasting legacy.

Viewers can keep an eye out for a wealth of familiar faces including M. Emmet Walsh, Jonathan Winters, Flip Wilson, Joe Seneca, Ken Foree, basketball figures like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Meadowlark Lemon, and Marv Albert, and even a pre-fame Harry Shearer.

Harry Shearer, Jonathan Winters, and M. Emmet Walsh

With its absurd title and premise, haphazard storytelling, outrageous setting, and unbelievable cast, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh is one of the oddest and most cultishly bonkers films of its era — even if it’s not a very good one.

Steel (1997)

Years after retiring from the NBA, Shaquille O’Neal is still a beloved public figure, in a large part due to his fun-loving and self-deprecating amiability. Perhaps you may have just seen him pop up on the collective radar of sports fans for losing a Super Bowl bet, and feathering up as a result.

But it’s not the first time he’s been in a turkey.

It’s incredible to think that more than 20 years have passed since Shaq’s comic book movie Steel — more time, even, than the gap between that film and The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.

Despite some major successes — mostly with Batman and Superman, Warner Brothers has always had an incredibly difficult challenge in translating DC Comics properties to the screen. Steel bombed big-time, taking in a meager $1.7M domestically against a $16M production.

The character Steel was one of DC’s cooler 90s comic creations, notable both as a major black superhero and an integral character in the groundbreaking Death and Return of Superman story arcs.

After being rescued by Superman, John Henry Irons devotes his life to heroism and fighting the escalation of high-tech weaponry that’s transforming his neighborhood’s urban street crime into sci-fi warfare.

Superman is integral to Steel’s origin and even his look, but the movie version excises that connection and is weaker for it. That major difference aside, the movie is somewhat faithful to the idea of Steel’s original solo story arc, trying to stop the flooding of advanced weapons into the streets.

This all translates to the screen rather poorly. Shaq’s awkward costume looks clunky and overly rounded, more Michelin Man than Man of Steel. At no point does he completely avoid looking ridiculous, especially with his mask on. If you can’t make your hero look cool, you’ve already lost half the battle. Moreover, from a practical standpoint the very idea of a giant man in metal-forged full-body armor simply doesn’t work in live action the way it can cheat reality in a comic book. In one hilarious scene that accentuates this best, Steel shoots a grappling hook as if to zip away like Batman or Spider-Man, but then slowly reels up.

With goofy dialogue and cheesy effects, Steel hasn’t aged any better than it originally fared. And yet, it’s not all bad. Even in this thankless role, Superman superfan Shaq — who is perfectly cast despite the movie’s other failings — is undeniably charming and entertaining to watch. Richard Roundtree and Irma P. Hall are always welcome presences, even though their characters are saddled with try-hard comedic dialogue.

We owe Steel this much at least — it’s never boring. It’s often cited as one of the worst comic book movies, but among the various DC films that have released over the years, I feel it actually manages to land somewhere in the (lower) middle, mostly thanks to its earnestness. It doesn’t begin to approach Donner, Burton, or Nolan (or the better half of Snyder), but it’s arguably more entertaining and reverent than much better-produced blockbuster dreck like Catwoman, Batman V Superman, or the Joel Schumacher Batflicks.

The Package

These two titles from Warner Archive are offered on DVD as part of their MOD Program.

Special Features and Extras

Both DVDs open with a Warner Archive pre-menu ad (1:00) and include a trailer.

The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh — Theatrical Trailer (1:31)

Steel — Theatrical Trailer (2:00)

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:

Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have slight compression inherent to file formats.

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