The steel is stronger than the flesh ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The steel is stronger than the flesh

Real Steel
My rating:

Real Steel earned a fair bit of derision in the months leading up to its release. We've been threatened by told of a couple of Hollywood projects that aim to adapt toys and boardgames into movies, and this one seemed for all the world like Rock'em Sock'em Robots: The Movie. Which is probably a laughable concept to anyone familiar with the ages-6-and-up toy, but I'm not one of them; I've never played it. Still, while it isn't the dumbest toy/game to be turned into a movie (I'm still waiting for Ridley Scott's Monopoly), the trailers made it look like a pretty silly Rocky/Over the Top ripoff with battling CGI robots in place of boxing or arm-wrestling.

It is exactly that. It is also, surprisingly, pretty good.

In a near future where "the fight game changed" and robots have taken over human fighters in the sport of boxing, former boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) now ekes out a meagre living taking battered old robots to underground matches - and more often than not, getting trashed. One day, he is informed that an old girlfriend has passed away and left him an 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo). The boy's aunt (Hope Davis) wants to adopt him, but Charlie works out a deal in which he will take care of Max for the summer for a cash payout. He intends to leave him with his old flame Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), a boxing gym owner, but Max insists on following him on tour. Later they find a battered old sparring robot in a scrapyard that Max names Atom, although no one - not even Charlie, initially - thinks much of it. But with Max's faith, and Charlie's tutelage in boxing moves, Atom starts winning more and more fights - and eventually earns the notice of Zeus, the undefeated world robot boxing champion, and its arrogant rich owners (Olga Fonda and Karl Yune).

I've just realized that I rarely apply the Family-friendly label on a review of a live-action film. Partly because it's hard to define, and partly because I often see it as a vote of confidence that I'm not always keen on giving - as if I am recommending that people take their kids to watch it. (The recent version of The Three Musketeers might qualify as a family film, but I'm not labeling it as such because it sucks.) Real Steel, however, is one movie I have no compunctions against giving the Family-friendly label. Partly because it clearly has a kid main character, and partly because it's good. In fact, kids will probably love it a lot more than adults, and if the robot toys are in stores by now then I bet they're flying off the shelves as we speak.

Of course, 3-½ stars only means it's good, not great. It's still a very formulaic underdog-sports-movie-cum-father-son-bonding-movie, with a side of boy-and-his-dog/animal/robot/otherwise-non-human-friend movie, and it generally pulls off all these elements well. In fact, a couple of critics have noted its similarities to the Transformers movies, and you can go ahead and replace "noted its similarities to" with "think it's much better than". I think so too, although it isn't quite because Shawn Levy is a better director than Michael Bay. (He is on AV Club's list of 10 Directors You Didn't Know You Hated, after all.) He tends to lay on the schmaltz a little thick, his approach to humour can be a little annoyingly juvenile, and there ain't a damn thing subtle about his storytelling.

But the one thing he does better than Bay is to film the robot boxing scenes clearly and coherently. And it helps that he got the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard to choreograph the fights, turning them into genuinely crowd-pleasing action scenes. Unlike its storyline's future-world conceit, I'd still rather watch two humans duking it out - it doesn't hold a candle to Warrior's fight scenes - but it's definitely thrilling to watch two 600-pound machines pounding on each other. (Although I couldn't help but wonder about this robot boxing business. Those things have safety subroutines, right? Something to prevent Atom from knocking someone's head off when Max leads it dancing down a crowded aisle? And when it lies prone after being knocked down, and takes a suspensefully long time to get up - what exactly is going on in that robot brain and chassis? Rebooting its system? Re-lubing its hydraulics?)

I suppose this is a step up for Levy, who was last seen round these parts interfering with Steve Carrell's and Tina Fey's comic chemistry in Date Night and making the oddly action-deficient Night at the Museum 2. It's also a step up for Hugh Jackman, who was last seen round these parts in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and deserves to be in a well-liked movie for a change. Charlie is a charming ne'er-do-well, a role that Jackman can pull off easily; although there are parts early on where his self-destructive streak gets a little too hard to like, Jackman's innate screen presence manages to sandpaper over it. Dakota Goyo is being hailed in some quarters as the next great child actor, but he's just okay to me. He's not called to do much except act precocious, and though he has an enjoyably contentious chemistry with Jackman, the sentimental scenes are still schmaltzy. I thought Evangeline Lilly did more with the little screen time she had.

Okay, I've spent this entire review delivering faint and qualified praise. I suppose I'm just reacting poorly to how many people are hailing it the best goddamn movie of the year, which, no, not even close. Although of course they would, seeing as how it's such a shameless crowd-pleaser. And that doesn't take away from how effective it is as a crowd-pleaser, with a nicely rousing climax. Or that it does a couple of things surprisingly well; I liked how subtly it weaved in - and paid off - Charlie's history as a (human) boxer. Twenty-five years from now, folks will probably look back on this with nostalgic warmth, same way adults of my generation think fondly of, say, 1986's Short Circuit. But it sure as hell ain't no Back to the Future or Ghostbusters.

Expectations: socially relevant techno-thriller or sleazy sexploitation flick? Hmm


asrap virtuoso said...

agreed. It is entertaining but you described it perfectly... its a "crowd pleaser". No way is it the best movie of the year.

KC said...

Definitely not movie of the year. It's one of the more enjoyable ones on a commercial level, yes, but it's not going to earn any stars (or trophies) for its plot and performance. Hugh Jackman looked like he had to take a crate of Red Bull before each shot and the same for Dakota (also as young Thor), not great but competent actor for his age.

If I had to compare it with Warrior, it would be just like the last fight with Zeus and Atom. Real Steel is the people's champion but Warrior is still the better fighter in the ring.

As for the robots, I wished that Bay had learned some lessons from this. The 'family-friendly' script and ways the robots/CGI were just used just seemed to fit the franchise so well that WB really missed a great director that would please the kids and not gain the hate-rage of people old enough to see their favourite cartoon ripped to shreds.

Nice review and I couldn't have written it better (which is probably why I couldn't write it anyway).

asrap virtuoso said...

@kc: spot on with that comparison with "Warrior" with that fight between Zeus and Atom

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