Memories of Shaq

By Mark Hanson

It was an unforgettable image that greeted me upon entering the video store: SHAQ, set strikingly against a purple backdrop, arms emphatically crossed as Kazaam. The poster promised fun twice: first in the critic’s quote from the Los Angeles Daily News placed above the title that screamed “FUN!” and then in the film’s tagline, “He’s a rappin’ genie-with-an-attitude… and he’s ready for slam-dunk fun!” With Shaq practically radiating off the wall while in the midst of a deep belly laugh (“The Laughs Start Soon” stated the bottom corner), there was no question that this movie would be a must-see.

For a burgeoning movie lover and house league basketball player such as myself, November of 1996 was a very good month. Space Jam made its worldwide premiere and my dad took my brother and I to see it opening weekend at our local Famous Players, where we promptly collected the requisite branded popcorn buckets and posed by the cardboard cut-out standee of Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes. Then, a mere four days later, Kazaam dropped on VHS, a moment I had been anticipating for weeks as it inched closer to the top of Fabulous Flicks Video’s “Coming Soon” board. We snagged it that Friday night and I dangerously inhaled dinner in a rush to sit down and pop that tape in.

Kazaam isn’t necessarily a good movie, but you don’t need me to tell you that. Its 5% Rotten Tomatoes score speaks for itself, as does the fact that it’s generally confused with a non-existent movie starring Sinbad. The storyline is also indicative of the kind of ignorant racism found in many ‘90s family films: it’s about a troubled inner city white kid named Max who forms a friendship with the boisterous Black genie he unleashes from a boombox. Until Max’s three wishes are granted, Kazaam remains the kid’s “slave,” and while it’s possible that director Paul Michael Glaser (formerly Starsky of Starsky & Hutch) was reaching for an underlying commentary in the reiteration of this point, the film’s blasé tone would signal that’s a stretch. But despite the obviously offensive qualities and a general lack of inspiration throughout, Shaq’s enthusiastic performance somehow rises above as the one element making good on the poster’s promise of FUN!

With Shaq practically radiating off the wall while in the midst of a deep belly laugh (“The Laughs Start Soon” stated the bottom corner), there was no question that this movie would be a must-see.

Even with the ignominious legacy that Kazaam would quickly earn, Shaq never regretted his decision to star in the film, famously stating years later: “I was a juvenile delinquent from Newark who always dreamed about doing a movie. Someone said, ‘Hey, here’s $7 million, come in and do this genie movie.’ What am I going to say, no?” And that’s exactly the spirit he carries through the film. Whether shooting bolts of energy from his fingertips or magically riding a bicycle around in the air, he wildly interacts with every shoddy special effect thrown his way. 

And since Kazaam was also essentially designed to further Shaq’s music career, coming off of the back-to-back album releases of Shaq Diesel and Shaq Fu: The Return, he gets ample opportunity to display his rap prowess, bringing down the house with a spirited performance of the track “We Genie” and spitting out charmingly loopy lyrics like, “Let’s green egg and HAM it!” Compared to the uncomfortably wooden performance stylings of Michael Jordan in Space Jam, Shaq’s turn in Kazaam is positively ebullient.

Shaq would get one more chance at movie stardom with the following year’s ill-fated superhero adaptation Steel, another film I eagerly anticipated coming out on video (I didn’t yet have the pull to convince my parents to take me to see these films in a theatre). Like Kazaam, the poster had a similarly awe-inspiring quality to it: SHAQ, looming large in a bulky metal costume, lips pursed and deadly serious, over the tagline, “Heroes don’t come any bigger.” Once again, I was sold.

Steel is a better film than Kazaam in that it spends less time desperately attempting to pander to children and more time trying to blow stuff up—an appealing proposition to me at an age where action movies were quickly becoming the peak of cinematic excellence. Based on a supporting character in the Superman universe, Steel at least has more genuine levity than any of the soulless superhero content presently churned out on a regularly scheduled basis. Shaq sincerely embraces the role of ex-military weapons designer John Henry Irons as he returns to his Los Angeles neighbourhood to clean up the streets and take on a villainous ex-colleague, played by a quickly-fading-from-stardom Judd Nelson.

Steel at least has more genuine levity than any of the soulless superhero content presently churned out on a regularly scheduled basis.

Stomping around the nighttime cityscape in his impenetrable steel suit while engaging in heavy doses of self-aware humour (his inability to make free throws becomes a running joke throughout, culminating in a climactic moment where he just barely manages to throw a grenade through a small hole and out of harm’s way), Shaq is having a (basket)ball. But yet again, the film flopped spectacularly and Shaq was lambasted, resulting in his second Razzie nomination—bafflingly, the first was not actually for Kazaam, but for his strong debut turn as a college athlete in William Friedkin’s Blue Chips, where he convincingly holds his own against Nick Nolte’s ranting-and-raving coach.

But no matter—it’s clear that Shaq never needed the movies. If anything, his star rose even higher in the ensuing years, when he would win three consecutive championship finals with the Lakers while honing his media personality for maximum entertainment value. Accordingly, his movie career would end up consisting mainly of cameos as himself in comedies like Freddy Got Fingered, Scary Movie 4, and Jack and Jill, with the memory of Kazaam and Steel receding from the public consciousness with each passing day. Yet sometimes, I find myself thinking about a world where I would have continually been greeted by the poster for a new Shaq movie throughout my adolescent trips to the video store, in as agreeably ubiquitous a way as Arnold or Bruce or The Rock, and it makes me smile.

Mark Hanson is a film writer and curator from Toronto, Canada, and the product manager at Bay Street Video, one of North America’s last remaining video stores.