AT SOME hazy point in the 90s, Shaquille O’Neal was huge, and not just 7’1 huge. Next to fellow NBA stars Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, Shaq was one of the most famous athletes in the world, with endorsement deals and multi-million dollar contracts with Pepsi and Reebok up the wazoo.
Perhaps inevitably – depressingly, having smelled fresh, deliciously marketable meat – Hollywood came a’knocking. In 1996, Shaq was offered a staggering $7 million to portray – wait for it – a rapping genie named Kazaam.
Shaquille O’Neal, famed basketball star, plays a rapping genie in a $20 million movie.
Need I say more. Kazaam is a manipulative sham of a film, exploiting the star power of its lead to cynically rake in the pocket money of impressionable youngsters and their dumbfounded parents. Its lazy direction, confused characters and cringe-inducing attempts to ride the coattails of contemporary trends all contribute to a simmering broth of ear-splitting agony for anyone and everyone, including Shaquille O’Neal.
Rarely have I sat through a film as patently ill-conceived as Kazaam. From top to bottom, it’s hard to imagine that this conceptual nightmare could have been remotely considered a vehicle for profit, even with Shaq at the fore. The pitch meeting must have been an absolute treat.
“Okay,” begins the green-eyed intern, a nervous twitch in his shoulder, “So there’s a millennia-old genie who migrates from his lamp to a broken boombox.” Executives murmur. “He speaks in rhyme, and regularly raps, because he’s vibing something fierce.” Executives exchange wide-eyed, incredulous looks.
“But get this! He’s down with the kids, and this one kid – the genie’s accidental master – is dripping with so much concentrated ‘tude it makes Sonic the Hedgehog look like Strawberry Shortcake.” Executives start baying for blood. “But wait! There’s more! The genie is Shaquille O’Neal.” The executives’ eyes are replaced with dollar signs. The intern relaxes, his position assured. The chief executive smiles. “You’ve got yourself a goddamn movie, son.”
And that’s exactly how it went down.
Whichever way you cut it, Shaq as a genie is one of the most absurd concepts ever seen in a cinema. The performance he gives is not much better. Though he obviously has masses of sheer physical presence, his idea of ‘charm’ involves a downturned stare and a frankly terrifying flash of pearly gnashers, as if he were auditioning for Alex de Large. Shaq’s rapeface, it turns out, is the stuff of nightmares.
Far worse even than his acting, however, is his rapping. Oh God, the rapping. Imagine, if you will, the most pedestrian, non-threatening rhymes possible. Now, compress them through a cauldron of 90s-isms, hurl in some horrendous choreography and finish with the line: “Let’s green egg and ham it.” Imagine our horror, then, when Shaq strikes up a duet-cod-rap-battle with Max (Francis Capra), thus doubling the incompetence. Shaq has all the flow of an arthritic Flava Flav falling into a vat of boiling porridge and only a little less acting talent. Capra, at least, has the advantage of being 12 years old.
With his mullet and overgrown denim cut-offs, Capra is drenched in such overwhelming levels of concentrated ‘tude – that most precious of 90s commodities – that we fear he might vanish beneath the sheer weight of it. In his defence, he acquits himself rather well considering the material, especially in his scenes with his estranged yuppie father (James Acheson) and his mother (Ally Walker).
Unfortunately, he has to contend with the world’s most determined bullies, an evil Arab (Marshall Manesh) plotting to steal the boombox and, of course, Shaquille O’Neal following him around everywhere. He’s also so utterly unfazed by everything you just want to smack him square in the chops; upon witnessing tonnes of junk food raining from the heavens, Capra has a snide little one-liner. Watching an inestimably powerful genie fly around on a magical golden bicycle is treated with the same gravitas as treading on chewing gum.
A particularly alarming moment comes when Capra wakes up to O’Neal’s massive hand on his face. There’s a particularly stupid occasion when Kazaam, the genie, declares, in relation to djinn, “I don’t believe in fairytales.” It took Grace of Monaco 18 years to trump the stupidity of that line. The plot hinges on the theft of a mastertape made of Shaq’s “incredible” gig. The film is made of stupid; lest we forget the finale, where Shaq turns Manesh into a human Kirby and, of course, slam dunks him into a garbage chute. Bravo.
Kazaam is a time capsule for everything wrong with 90s pop culture. Not only is it a bastardisation of a classic, archetypical story of a genie and its three wishes, it’s also a lazy, drivelsome bore that ended the directorial career of Paul Michael Glaser, AKA Starsky from Starsky & Hutch and director of Schwarzenegger favourite The Running Man. There is, however, a weird, Bizarro charm about it. It’s towering in its absurdity, a tribute to corporate greed manifested in the strangest way possible. It’s absolute tripe, of course, but it’s oddly watchable tripe. Let’s green egg and ham it.