Steel and Lace is a curiosity from a glorious time when every action/horror movie had a cyborg in it. About half the movie seems like campy exploitation, particularly those scenes that focus on rapist/mobster Danny Emerson (Michael Cerveris) and his mullet-adorned pals. From the sleazy wink he gives Gaily (Clare Wren) after a jury acquits him of raping her to the blood-red “clawed fist clutching the earth” logo of his company, Danny is portrayed as so cartoonishly evil, it’s impossible to take him seriously.
While I’d love to judge the movie on the merit of a campy thriller that doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s hard to reconcile the silly, over-the-top moments with the more subdued, introspective moments. Cyborg Gaily questions how much humanity she has left. Courtroom sketch artist Alison (Stacy Haiduk) finds herself so emotionally affected by Gaily’s story, she becomes consumed and starts putting a case together against Danny. Director Ernest D. Farino lets these scenes play with sensitivity that doesn’t mesh well with the patent absurdity of the rape flashback (which resembles a Whitesnake video more than a horrific act of violence) or the carnage cyborg Gaily inflicts.
The plot is a typical early-’90s take on the standard revenge thriller: Gaily, haunted by Danny’s goofily staged rape (which involves his four best buddies taunting her while Danny does his thing), is so distraught when the verdict comes back “not guilty,” she jumps off the roof of the courthouse. Five years later, Danny’s buddies—now equal partners in his shady business ventures, thanks to sticking by him during the rape trial—start to die, one by one. Her brother (Bruce Davison) worked as a NASA robotics scientist before retiring to focus on bringing his sister back as a revenge-seeking cyborg.
The film balances this storyline’s murderous shock moments with Alison’s investigation. Her ex-boyfriend, Detective Dunn (David Naughton), is also on the case, but nobody has any idea who could be killing Danny’s friends, or why. Danny’s company has made a lot of enemies, but few humans can kill a man by draining all his blood out through his penis (I am not making that up). Alison has a strong enough intuition to suspect Gaily’s brother Albert of being up to something nefarious—but what?
The film focuses more on Alison and Dunn than Danny and Gaily, and that’s a problem. On some level, it seems like the filmmakers wanted to appeal to women, so they hedged their bets by having a live woman—not a cyborg controlled by a man—as the lead character. However, neither Alison nor Dunn add much, and their presence detracts from potentially more interesting material involving Gaily, Danny, and Albert. The murders make Danny and his friends paranoid, but none of them really seem to consider the moral or karmic ramifications of what they’ve done. They’re all too evil to be believed. As a result, the murder sequences—while inventive and disturbing—don’t feel like a deserved comeuppance so much as a cheap shock.
Cheap shocks are all well and good in a dopey action movie, but the filmmakers here spend a great deal of time questioning the moral and karmic ramifications of what Gaily is doing. Are her actions just? Are her actions even her own? Albert had the plan to build a cyborg version of his sister that can shapeshift (sort of—she’s not exactly the T-1000, but she has a lot of skill with wigs and latex) and enact revenge. Should Gaily be considered a pawn in unjust actions, or a tool for carrying out just desserts? The film really does ask all these questions, but it doesn’t provide any clear answers or a strong point of view. It seems like they’re just trying to be deep, man.
When camp and philosophy duke it out, nobody wins. Steel and Lace could have been a tight, suspenseful thriller about bad men facing the consequences of a horrible action. Instead, it ended up a wildly uneven mixed bag full of extraneous characters and silly shock killings.