The 1987 film “Steel Dawn” is a masterpiece of filmmaking. It is not a masterpiece because it is well done, for it isn’t. It is not a masterpiece because it is well paced, for its pacing includes vast swaths of soul-killing emptiness that will send you diving for the remote control for relief. It is not a masterpiece because it includes brilliant fight choreography, unless you enjoy men in Tina Turner fright wigs walking stiffly, as if they have gastroinestinal difficulties. “Steel Dawn” is brilliant because, of all the things it does poorly, it does one of them very well, and that is being the 1989 film, “Road House.” “Steel Dawn” does a better job being “Road House” than almost any other movie, including “Road House 2” (LEGALLY REQUIRED WARNING: ROAD HOUSE 2 FEATURES NAKED JAKE BUSEY).
Please allow me to explain.
In any power vacuum, order is established from chaos by an evil short man and his stable of thugs. This is a proven sociopolitical fact. That evil short man may be Ben Gazzara (notable for nothing despite appearances in 132 films) or it may be Anthony Zerbe (notable for playing “Teaspoon” in “The Young Riders” and for appearing once in 1996 on an episode of “Walker, Texas Ranger”). Regardless of whether your evil short man is Ben Gazzara or Anthony Zerbe, his stable of thugs will be ruled by an Alpha Thug, under whose taciturn leadership the lesser thugs will run the town with an iron hand (despite sometimes erratic discipline).
Here is the plot of a movie:
A lone warrior wanders into a conflict not of his creation in a small town run by an evil short man who employs a stable of thugs to keep the populace under his thumb. He falls in love with the only eligible female in the town, who is also the object of desire of the evil short man (despite the evil short man’s almost certain homosexuality). The lone warrior’s mentor, his beloved martial arts teacher, is killed by the evil short man for his interference (potential or actual) in the evil short man’s business. Vowing vengeance, the lone warrior upsets the power structure of the small town by defying the evil short man and engaging in several duels with his stable of thugs. These duels culminate in a battle with the Alpha Thug, who is really more interested in proving who is the better fighter than he is in obeying his lord and master’s bidding.
Having defeated the Alpha Thug, the lone warrior confronts the evil short man, whose love for the lone warrior’s female love interest is eclipsed by his desire to defeat and homosexually rage-fuck the lone warrior. He threatens the life of the female love interest and is horribly killed by the lone warrior. The lone warrior then either leaves town or pauses long enough to affirm his mostly heterosexuality with the female love interest before (presumably) leaving town.
This is the plot of both Patrick Swayze’s “Steel Dawn” and Patrick Swayze’s “Road House.” They are precisely the same movie. The later film simply had more of a budget.
There are some noteworthy casting choices in “Steel Dawn.”
Patrick Swayze’s character is “Nomad,” although he is never named by a character in the film. His love interest, “Kasha,” is played by Swayze’s real-life wife, Lisa Niemi (Swayze).
Brion James, the replicant from Blade Runner whom the other replicants all thought of as “slow” or “special,” is also known for his appearances in such films as “Tango and Cash” and “The Fifth Element,” not to mention 1997’s “Assault on Dome 4.” His character’s name is “Tark.” Tark is Kasha’s bodyguard and the foreman on her moisture farm on the desert world of Not Tatooine.
Also present is John Fujioka, who apparently wandered onto the set while searching for a movie in which actual actors were hired, and stayed long enough to play Patrick Swayze’s Wise Asian Mentor in the Fighting Arts and Warrior Philosophy.
As the film opens, there is sand. Sand, sandily sand, sanditty sanditty sandsandsand. Nomad walks along the sand and pauses to stand on his head in the sand just long enough for some Low Budget Sandpeople to attack him. He has deliberately drawn these creatures to him because, hey, a warrior’s got to test his skills, right? And the best way to test your skills is on unarmed rag-clothed stuntmen whom you could have avoided fighting if you had found some other place to meditate on your head. Patrick Swayze’s secret weapon is an aluminum sword designed for twirling like a baton. He does a lot of twirling throughout the film.
True story: I once encountered an online nutjob who told me he had invented his own sword-fighting style based on techniques he had observed in films like “Highlander” and “Steel Dawn.” I have always assumed that this young man was horribly killed.
Anyway, Nomad meets the Most Awesome Wolf Dog In The World while out in the desert. They become fast friends. Then Nomad wanders onto Kasha’s moisture farm and gets, like, hired or something, but not before he goes to a mountain tavern (which is suspiciously similar to a darkened room on a sound stage somewhere) and encounters his wise old Asian mentor guy, Cord (played by a bewildered John Fujioka). Fujioka spends some time out-acting everybody in the room before GOONS, HIRED GOONS stumble into the tavern. Swayze discovers he has been roofied and collapses to the floor.
An evil assassin, Sho, who is also the movie’s contract Alpha Thug, walks very carefully into the room. He is wearing a Tina Turner fright wig and apparently suffers from a very bad case of untreated hemorrhoids. Sho is played by Christopher Neame, who played the Maitre D’ in “Ghostbusters 2” (what, you don’t remember him from that?) and who actually has (sans Tina Turner wig) a long history of playing villains in B-grade action- and martial-arts films, such as Jeff Speakman’s classic, “Street Knight” (a title I am attempting to option for my next Paladin Press book).
Sho kills Cord with a Crafty Knee Blade hidden in his knee pad/shin-guard thing. After recovering from his drugging and wandering, depressed and lonely, to Kasha’s moisture farm, Swayze gets a job on Not Tatooine and goes about his business of being mysterious and irresistable. Nomad is most irresistable to young Jux, son of Kasha and possibly the worst child actor ever to take the screen. Nomad teaches Jux to stand on his head when Jux asks to be taught how to fight. Something about this is perfectly logical to everyone involved. In his spare time, Jux enjoys building wind racers out of aluminum sheeting, leading everyone to wonder just how much of “Steel Dawn” inspired scenes in the Star Wars prequels.
Something is going on in the village of Not Tatooine involving water rights and the machinations of Anthony Zerbe, the movie’s evil short man. Zerbe and his thugs harass the villagers at a meeting. Zerbe and his thugs harass Kasha and Jux and Tark at the market. Zerbe and his thugs harass Patrick Swayze while he is bathing in the middle of a desert plain. We’ll get to that.
There is some more mind-numbingly bad plot that involves filthy people in the desert doing things with tents and fake machinery. At one point Nomad and Tark travel to Anthony Zerbe’s encampment and steal an empty beer keg that is essential to the operation of the moisture farm run by Patrick Swayze’s wife on Not Tatooine. We get to see some boobs here when our heroes look into a tent full of Half Naked Desert Skanks, possibly because the Hool Brothers (who directed, produced, wrote, and finger-banged the movie, as well as casting their son/nephew Brett Hool in the role of Jux, the Kid Who Can’t Act And Who Wants To Learn To Fight When He’s Not Wind-Racing) wanted to secure an R rating for the film.
Either before or after the Great Beer Keg Stealing, Nomad engages in a “stave” duel with Sho. Sho turns out to be marginally better with tent-awning aluminum bo-staff combat than Patrick Swayze. “You’re very good,” he says at one point in the film, “But I think a little out of practice.” Whether he is referring to martial arts or sex with men is not clear.
There are a few other minor combat scenes involving the lesser thugs and Patrick Swayze. At one point, Brion James, aka Tark, forgets that he is only a supporting character and is quickly, casually killed by the lesser thugs. Patrick Swayze somehow manages to emasculate Tark even after he is dead by being marginally better at not-fighting-well than Tark was.
The wind racers are eventually employed when Jux (the dumb kid) is kidnapped by Arnold Vosloo, who, I kid you not, was the Mummy in those Brendan Frasier Mummy movies, except that his voice is dubbed by someone else entirely because his own voice was not menacing enough for the role of Thug #3 (whose actual character name, according to IMDB, was “Makker,” as in, “Gone to meet your Makker”). At one point, Jux jumps from his wind racer, whereupon the small boy becomes a huge stunt man for the duration of the jump and roll.
Nomad engages in a wind racer duel with Makker (not making this up) and stabs him with a lance attached to the vehicle. “I told you not to play with sharp objects,” he says, recalling the earlier scene in which Patrick Swayze meticulously bathes his toes while seated in a washtub in a cloud of horse dust in the middle of the desert. Where did he get the water for the tub? Nobody knows. Is it considered unusual to have a washtub to sit in when water is the most valuable commodity in this benighted little shithole post-apocalyptic town?: This is never addressed. Are the bad guys turned on by naked, be-mullet-ed Patrick Swayze bathing in the desert? Almost certainly, as Anthony Zerbe’s pop-eye pops more and his squint-eye squints more while he tries to keep a straight face during their flirting, er, confrontation.
The Most Awesome Wolf Dog In The World chases off and/or kills-and-eats the dumbest of the thugs — who, not coincidentally, is the one with the pair of post-apocalyptic nunchucks. The dog fetches the nunchucks and brings them back to Nomad. Not making that up. Not at all.
Nomad decides that a final confrontation with the evil short man is in order. He reveals that the sheath for his sword is a pair of metal clips attached to his thigh, which allow the sword to ride, inverted, with its blade pointed up into his flank as he walks, making it impossible for him to walk or run without stabbing himself. Sword affixed to his leg, he goes to Anthony Zerbe’s compound, where he engages in a duel with the lesser thugs and also confronts Sho, the Alpha Thug in the TIna Turner Wig.
Now, this is an important plot point: Earlier in the film, when one of the lesser thugs hits Swayze with a shovel so fragile it breaks over his head (because it is a Stunt Shovel), Sho is very upset that he has been interrupted in his attempt to Test The Limits of His Skill As A Martial Artist. He warns the lesser thug that, should lesser thug interfere again, Sho will cut his head off. Well, lesser thug attempts to interrupt the final confrontation between Swayze and Sho, so Sho cuts the lesser thug’s head off. “I warned you not to interfeeeeeeer!” Sho squeals.
Sho informs Swayze that Swayze is the best opponent he has ever faced, “But no one is better than me.” He goes on to be killed while attempting to employ his Crafty Knee Blade. It turns out that Patrick Swayze’s sword has a hidden blade in its hilt, which he uncovers at the crucial moment and uses to stab Sho somewhere in the vital torso region. That doesn’t kill him, but eventually Swayze sweeps both the little swords out of Sho’s grip. As Sho stands, chagrined and helpless without his precious blades, Swayze performs a spinning reverse underhand Death Stab and skewers Sho through the gut. Show falls to his knees with Swayze’s sword sticking in him, which is almost certainly a creepy gay sex penetration metaphor that would make Giger proud.
“My swords,” Sho pleads. He is a Warrior to the last. His only desire is to die with his swords in his hands. Patrick Swayze brings him the swords and lets him clutch them as he lay dying, which would be the perfect time for Sho to stab him in the face, but he doesn’t.
“Why,” Sho gasps, dying theatrically. “A dried up valley… a handful of peasants…”
“You forget an old man in a mountain tavern,” Swayze says.
Sho, realizing that he has made the critical movie villain mistake of killing the beloved mentor of the protagonist, starts laughing. Swayze rips the sword free because, hey, he can’t leave it sheathed in Christopher Neame. Christopher Neame dies, silently vowing never to wear a Tina Turner wig again no matter how prominent is his Widow’s Peak.
Anthony Zerbe shows up as if to remind us he is still in the film, and perhaps upset that Sho and Nomad have demolished his aluminum windmill in the course of their epic battle on his property. He threatens Swayze’s wife and Swayze actually employs the knife he has been carrying around on his ankle throughout the film. He throws it at Zerbe and stabs him in the neck long-distance with it. Zerbe falls back onto some barbed wire that has been strung behind him for no conceivable reason, whereupon he dies in what may be a Christ metaphor coupled with a crappy script.
His work in the Valley completed, Nomad packs up his aluminum sword and his canvas bag of jawa-killing junk and leaves the valley, because staying and having sex would make too much sense now that all the villains have been killed. The wastelands are his home, or some nonsense. As he leaves, we see the retarded assistants his wife employs on her moisture farm have somehow magically become un-stupid, possibly because they only played dumb so as to avoid earning the ire (and the nightly ministrations) of a drunken, hostile Tark. The plan is to build a city using the water supply available on the property.
Not depicted in the film is the fact that the city they eventually built became the dystopian horror that was Bartertown. Needless to say, a very bitter Kasha bwould go on to become Tina Turner in “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.”