Watch as many movies in a year as I do and you inevitably run into a few titles where you find yourself having to constantly repeat “no, really!” when explaining to someone that you liked them. Last year alone there was The Losers, The A-Team, The Other Guys. Now welcome 2011’s entry to the club: Real Steel. I liked Real Steel. No, really! And despite everything you’ve seen in the trailers, it’s less “Rock ‘Em Sock ’Em” than it is Rocky. Except…you know, with robots. Call it “The Sweet Science Fiction”, if you must.
Real Steel takes place in the near future, in a world pretty much exactly like ours but for the fact that, in an attempt to satisfy America’s bloodlust for a bigger and more “complete” fight-viewing experience, robots have replaced humans in boxing, pro-wrestling, and MMA rings. Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a down-on-his-luck former champion (of actual boxing) who now makes a nominal living hustling robot fights in low-rent county fairs and the underground fight circuit. After another hustle, in which he gets temporary custody of his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo), the boy blackmails Charlie into taking him along on a fight, and the two eventually happen upon an old sparring bot named “Atom”. With a bit of technical know-how, a little “training” (programming, basically), and more than a little luck, the trio gains the attention of the media and fight promoters, and they quickly make their way from the underground circuit to the glossy, professional big-show. But does Atom have it in him to win the big fight? Will love and family triumph over all? Can Charlie redeem himself, or at least prove himself worthy of redemption, for all his years of being a horrible human being?
The answers to none of these questions will shock you as, story-wise, Real Steel is a bit predictable and a little cheesy, with entirely too much dancing for my liking (don’t ask). The biggest surprises and twists are, in fact, when you find yourself actually caring about the different characters, their relationships, and yes, even rooting for the scrappy little (relatively speaking) training robot. As a bit of Friday night family fun, I guarantee that you’ve sat through far worse. There are a few odd bits of story dropped that don’t ultimately lead anywhere (Max speaks Japanese? Is Atom becoming self-aware, somehow, a little bit?), that I will happily chalk up to me reading too much into what is essentially a pretty uncomplicated movie.
Director Shawn Levy isn’t my favorite filmmaker (though I did enjoy last year’s Date Night), but here he surprises us by dropping some of his usual “tricks” while still staying firmly in family-picture mode. Levy succeeds in filling the screen with little touches that make the “world”, and the characters inhabiting it, real: shabby, gritty, lived in, a bit sad. The robots themselves are a seamless combination of CGI for the big fight scenes (shot with motion capture of actual fighters, overseen by living boxing legend “Sugar Ray” Leonard) and practical for close-ups and “hero” shots. The robots, and even the cars and other bits of tools and tech laying around, fit perfectly in the world of the movie: industrial, beat up, rusted, and a bit dangerous (in the watch-out-for-random-engine-fires sense).
I’m a huge Hugh Jackman fan and would pay to watch him just reading the phone book (I actually have, once – it was called Kate & Leopold. Ooh! Burn!), and as a fan I was definitely not disappointed (though, to be honest, I rarely am) with Jackman’s portrayal – a “lost soul” who is ultimately quite surprised to find that he’s still a good person inside. Dakota Goyo as Max is good in the way that many child actors are good when they just play kids, rather than “child actor playing a kid”. And though I continue, in theory, to enjoy seeing Evangeline Lilly in movies, here she continues her trend of being typecast as long-suffering-wife/girlfriend-back-home. She does have a certain star-quality, but I find her acting style a bit “busy” – she can’t seem to simply deliver a line without a toss of the hair, a fluttering of eyelashes, or a throw of her arms into the air (I think it’s a TV thing).
Real Steel is based on a short story by Richard Matheson (if it’s science fiction and not based on a comic, a Saturday morning cartoon, or a well-known novel by Asimov, Bradbury, or Clarke – trust me, it’s either Phillip K. Dick or Richard Matheson). The movie doesn’t have much connection to the original story other than the basic premise of robot fighting having taken over human fighting in popularity, and the vague notion that this is a redemption story (to see a more thematically accurate “modern update” to the original story, look for the battlebots episode of The Simpsons) though, for what it’s worth, Matheson has nodded his approval to the final product. Real Steel is a “real” story that happens to take place in a sci-fi-ish world, and in this particular case I’m glad that the story isn’t “about” its sci-fi elements. The same story could have been told with poker, car racing, or karaoke. The presence of 10-foot-tall robots punching the crap out of each other is, for me, just sweet, sweet gravy.
Posted on October 11, 2011, in Film Review and tagged Anthony Mackie, boxing, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Hugh Jackman, Kevin Durand, movie review, Real Steel, robots, Shawn Levy. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.