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Real Steel (2011)

October 11, 2011

written by: John Gatins (screenplay) and Dan Gilroy & Jeremy Levine (story)
produced by: Shawn Levy, Susan Montford & Don Murphy
directed by: Shawn Levy
rating: PG-13 (for some violence, intense action and brief language)
runtime: 127 min.
U.S. release date: October 7, 2011
When the trailers and TV spots started coming in for “Real Steel”, many weren’t sure what to make of it. Robot boxing? Will this be a comedy? A sports movie? Both? The premise seemed like a big-screen version of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots or maybe a remake of Stuart Gordon’s 1990 sci-fi flick, “Robot Jox”. Thankfully, it’s more than just robots destroying each other (see Michael Bay for that), it’s a timeless tale of redemption and determination, set in a lived-in near-future, revolving around an estranged relationship between a father and son. It’s a safe bet that some will balk at the apparent clichés, overall predictability, and familial melodrama involved here. I get all that but I fell for the movie nevertheless and was surprised to find an entertaining family movie, serving that pre-teen age bracket that is so often overlooked. 

In the year 2020, robot have replaced humans in the sport of boxing. It makes sense, considering the potential for severe brain injury in the ring. These colorful robots have fancy names and superimposed personalities, but cannot throw punches on their own and must remote-controlled (like a video game) outside the ropes, in order for them to fight. It takes someone who not only knows the latest (and best) models,  but also one who knows how to punch in the right gameplay patterns. 

Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is not that guy. He’s impatient and impulsive, relying on acquiring the latest souped-up hotrod robot and hoping it will be the end of his piling debt. Such behavior causes a strain on the relationship he has with Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly), who runs the gym that belonged to her now-deceased father (Charlie’s former coach).  The thing is, he does know boxing. He used to be a great boxer albeit one who never saw his star truly rise to the top. So, he’s still got a head for the sport, but that might be pointless since it’s no longer the sweet science of his prime. 
 REAL STEEL Hugh Jackman
Word comes to Charlie that one of his former flames has died, leaving behind Max (Dakota Goyo), his eleven-year-son he hasn’t seen since birth. His son’s aunt Debra (Hope Davis) steps in, seeking full-custody of the boy, but the state gives Charlie first dibs. In a scumbag move, Charlie strikes a secret deal with Debra’s husband, Marvin (James Rebhorn), which leaves Max with him for the summer with the promise that he hand the boy over to them in New York, when they get back from their vacation in Italy. 

Now, we know the story from here as we see the clichés really start to pile up. The stubborn-yet-smart boy grows on Charlie and the two eventually bond while on the road, traveling from one underground robot fight club to the next. While the boy is mouthy (he’s got every right to be considering the only parent he has left abandoned him at day one), he’s also kind of endearing, which wins over Bailey and wears down Charlie. It’s also pretty obvious where the movie is heading when we see that Max loves robot boxing and like every kid his age, instinctively knows video games. A perfect match for Charlie, something that we see before he does. 

One rainy night, as the father and son scour through a junkyard looking for parts, Max stumbles upon (literally) an old sparing bot named Atom ( a soulfully-designed creation). Seeing the discovery as some kind of bonding fate, Max lugs the entire robot back to the gym, determined to get him into fighting shape. Charlie balks at the idea at first, but it doesn’t take him long to see himself in his son and that Atom can take more heavy hits than any of the latest hi-tech models. 

Once Max outfits Atom with voice command innards from more modern bots, Charlie reluctantly gets the kid a fight. And guess what? That’s right – Atom wins. Yes, we know more about the story than the actual characters do, but despite all that, the movie never loses its engaging charm. Of course, Atom’s wins increase as the summer goes on, going from rinky-ding fights to a shot at the WRB (World Robot Boxing) winning-champ Zeus, which result in a conflict for Charlie. He knows that he and his son are good together, but also knows that his world is dangerous for the boy, especially when an overacting rival (I’m talking to you Kevin Durand) seeking money, beats Charlie within an inch of his life, right in front of Max. (Clearly, Child Services didn’t get the big picture). 

The picture inevitably swells to a perfect storm of emotional redemption (both for Atom and Charlie) and heartfelt connection (Charlie/Max/Bailey), and rewarding acceptance (Atom is crowned “The People’s Champion”). Again, nothing new here except the setting and the update to the sport. But is completely familiar to viewers who’ve watched movies most of their lives, may not be the case for those sitting in the audience Max’s age, especially boys. 

It’s rare to find a decent movie that suits that often over-looked age of not-yet-a-preteen, It turns out “Real Steel” is such a movie. I’m thinking credit is due to the producing hands of Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemekis, who both know a thing or two about crowd-pleasing family films suitable for any age. I mention those two veterans because director Shawn Levy (“A Night at the Museum” and “Cheaper by the Dozen”) hasn’t done much to break through genre conventions in the past, with the exception of “Date Night” (a film that succeeded due to its cast). 

Still, Levy convincingly establishes a perceivably odd environment, that is, once you kick back an accept it all. The CGI he employs for the robots is quite impressive, especially since we’re introduced to them in the brightness of broad daylight. The first time we see a robot fight is at a rodeo, not against another bot, but a raging bull. It may be a bizarre and silly juxtaposition, but it will undoubtedly either hook you. Unless you groan and roll your eyes at it all, but the audience I saw it with were clapping and laughing at what they saw, myself included. 

Based on Steel, a short story by Richard Matheson (“I Am Legend”), which was made into an old Twilight Zone episode that had Lee Marvin in the Hugh Jackman role, this feature-length Disney distributed adaptation has scrapped the creep factor to service the genres it embraces. It takes a charismatic actor like Jackman though to make a selfish deadbeat dad likeable, and that he does. Newcomer Dakota Goyo is an impressive young talent, reminding me of young Ricky Schroeder from the 1979 remake “The Champ”, and it is great to see Evangeline Lilly (of TV’s “Lost”) get al larger role than what she had in “The Hurt Locker”. Her co-star from that film, Anthony Mackie does a good job with a small role as Charlie’s friend and entertaining boxing MC. Across the board, the cast injects a needed believability to an unbelievable concept. 
Those expecting a movie about robot boxing will be disappointed there is more than meets they eye here. Not anything original, but at least it’s not two hours of insufferable (and indecipherable) clashing robots. We’ve seen three of those flicks already. A movie can be guilty of clichés and predictability and still be entertaining (as in the recent “Warrior”). Whether audiences will be in this movie’s corner remains to be seen, but I have a feeling it will be a hit. 

5 Comments leave one →
  1. windi noel permalink
    October 11, 2011 9:15 am

    You are right in that it’s a perfect movie for the pre-teen. My boys are 10 and 12, and they absolutely loved it. Even Trevor, who leaned over about 20 minutes in to the film and said “Mom, this movie is sooo predictable, but it’s still really good!” hahaha. Heck, I thoroughly enjoyed it myself. Yes, you can see the plot coming a mile away, but it was well acted, well played, and well choreographed, and there’s a reason that this particular story-line gets played so often. Sometimes, you want to see what’s coming, and just sit back and enjoy the ride! 🙂

    Considering the boys are becoming a wee bit too old to see the ‘kids movies’ (they didn’t want to go see The Lion King at the theater! 🙁 ), but most of the action flicks they want to see are just not appropriate yet, it was great being able to go see this movie. The small amount of cussing in the movie was not unacceptable, given the environment the movie takes place in, and I was very happy that the romance part of the show took a back seat to the rest of the movie and was restricted to just a couple of kisses. Some things pre-teens just don’t need to see yet! hahaha

  2. October 12, 2011 12:55 am

    That little boy make movie interesting and i like that ROBOT dance specially.

    Nice blog and very nicely written.


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