Review: Real Steel (2011)

Real Steel


Shawn Levy
John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, Jeremy Leven
127 min.
Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand, Hope Davis, James Rebhorn, Marco Ruggeri, Karl Yune, Olga Fonda
MPAA Rating
PG-13 for some violence, intense action and brief language

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They say that there isn’t a new plot under the sun, only those combined or improved upon by others. The temptation, however, is to change the character archetypes, repackage them with a new setting or modern turmoil and hope that audiences don’t reject it outright. In a very rare occasion, the concept is tweaked just enough to not only retain its familiarity, but provide a surprisingly entertaining spectacle. Enter Real Steel.

To the casual observer (and to match my own comments for many months), this would appear to be little more than Rock ‘Em-Sock ‘Em Robots on the big screen. And that comparison is still apt. The ‘80s children’s toys where you and your friends put small plastic robots into a mechanical ring and duke it out for superiority is unequivocally on display in this film. To make it more realistic, or at least less cheap and crass, the screenwriters John Gatins, Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven placed the saga into the near future where human desire for more violence in the boxing ring has led to the creation of a fighting robot league where human operators control massive automatons in a no-holds-barred fight to destruction. Since the operators are not physical harmed by their robots’ deaths, the more visceral the carnage for the spectators, the better.

Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) was an up-and-coming boxer whose potential rise to fame was demolished by his own hubris and the slow evolution of the sport to mechancial combat. Moving from destroyed bot to destroyed bot, Charlie’s attempting to rebuild his career as a prominent pugilist with middling success. Instead of taking a slow, methodical approach to his remurgence in the field, as his wise ex-girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly) has suggested, he goes all-in and makes ludicrous bets and comes out on the worse end of each one.

After a particularly brutal loss to an enormous bull at a former friend’s fair event, a new wrinkle threatens his chance for success, or so he thinks. His ex-wife has died leaving his son Max (Dakota Goyo) without a home. Although he has no desire to take the boy on, he settles on a backroom agreement with his sister-in-law Debra’s (Hope Davis) wealthy husband (James Rebhorn) to accept money while giving over custody to them.

At this point, the set up proceeds almost exactly as you expect. Deadbeat father eventually becomes fond of his son, but his own idiocy threatens to destroy his burgeoning relationship, etc. And even the trajectory from junkyard scavenging to world title prizefight goes precisely as planned. The dialogue is even rather familiar, as evinced in a late-film plea Jackman makes to a hostile Debra.

Where the film really shines is in the action. Michael Bay has done large, clashing robots to death and, to an extent, has been the creator of some amazing visual effects in that arena. However, director Shawn Levy’s film has taken Bay’s emotion-deprived Transformers in an evolutionary direction. Atom, the abandoned machine Max discovers in the waste water from the junkyard has a layer of emotionalism that you would never have thought possible looking at Transformers, but if Peter Jackson can do it with Gollum in The Lord of the Rigns and the titular King Kong, it’s not surprising the same can’t be done for other inanimate-animate objects (just look at how animated films have been doing it for decades).

Levy crafts in his myriad fight sequences, a level of audience involvement typically reserved for more traditional boxing dramas. In Real Steel, he manages to take the best elemetns from films like Rocky and turn them into exciting spectacles of fighting action. Before I saw this film, I never would have expected more than copycat action sequences; however, what I found was much more exciting and involving than I would have thought possible. The blend of throbbing music, evocative crowd dynamics and grinding sound effects adds to the tightly edited battle scenes. It’s almost as if Levy is desparately trying to create a real motion picture inspite of its obviously childish foundation.

Jackman, Lilly and Goyo are all find performances in the film, they aren’t reaching for high pinnacles of excellence, but they aren’t languishing in the action film mold of perfunctory performance. Kevin Durand as a unlikable countrified fight promoter is aggressively bad, but the rest of the supporting cast, including Charlie’s old pal Finn played by Anthony Mackie, play things smoothly and avoid any major missteps.

One of the more interesting elements the film manages to do well is in eliminating the central villain figure that often dominates this kind of field. Much like the original Rocky, which I find this film resembling more and more as I think about it, the audience doesn’t have a single entity to root against, they must simply root for the good guy against each and every foe against whom he fights.

But, like the Rocky sequels, I can see Real Steel quickly devolving into a franchise where each film features a new and obvious enemy for Atom to take down, which will steal much of the positive qualities the film currently has going for it. Of course, the inevitable sequel won’t be able to live up to this film’s capabilities and we’ll be talkin about another franchise that needs to end before it becomes utterly irredeemable, but at least for right now, we have a flawed, but engaging film that accomplishes its very limited goal: to entertain.
Review Written
November 9, 2011

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