Real Steel (2011)

13 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILER ALERT! I’m not bringing up the “Rock-Em/Sock-Em Robots” reference in this review of “Real Steel,” because everyone else already has….and OK, END OF SPOILER ALERT!

Before I go into the giant boxing mechanical robots that take up the central part of the film, “Real Steel” should first be acknowledged as that rarity of stories—a story set in a future that doesn’t suck for once. Every tale set in the future nowadays has to be some cautionary tale about how our lifestyles will lead to our downfall. But not “Real Steel.” This takes place in the year 2020, which doesn’t look much different from today. The main difference is in our technology. It has advanced to the point where human boxers are replaced by eight-or-nine-foot robots controlled by their owners/managers.

The bizarre thing is that “Real Steel” is actually convincing in making us believe that this could happen. Our technology is changing every time, so why not advance them to the point of using these new creations for underworld boxing? And it’s being taken seriously—the conversations don’t sound contrived, given the situations. They sound surprisingly realistic. Once you accept the idea that robots are fighting in matches, you can buy the movie in general. However, there is also the matter of the story, which is made up of a lot of sports clichés that either tire you or excite you. If you’re in the latter, and like I said, if you can accept this premise, you’re most likely going to enjoy this movie.

The film stars solid-as-always Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a former boxer who is now operating robots for fights. (In an opening scene, we see him operate a robot to go up against…a bull. That sequence is hilariously credible.) He owes a lot of money to his challengers and keeps repairing and purchasing new robots to go for the big win every time. Once his newest robot is a piece of scrap heap, he needs money to buy a new robot. Enter his 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo), whom he hasn’t seen in years. Max’s mother has just died and Charlie is in line for custody of the child. However, Max’s aunt Debra (Hope Davis) wants to raise him. So Charlie makes a deal with Debra’s wealthy husband (James Rebhorn) that for a hundred-grand, he’ll sell his custody rights over to them. But there’s a catch—Charlie has to babysit the kid for the summer so Debra can go on vacation.

In a junkyard, Max stumbles upon a rusty, old robot called “Atom.” After doing some repairs and tinkering, with help from Charlie’s girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Kelly), they bring the small, older robot to life. Max convinces Charlie to give him a fight, and to Charlie’s surprise, Atom winds up winning his first fight. And then he keeps winning, with Max teaching him new moves and Charlie lending his own skills in boxing. This seems a lot like a mechanical version of “Rocky,” and wouldn’t you know it? They make it to the championship where Atom must square off against the big, hulking mechanical beast called “Zeus,” run by an Asian billionaire and a female Russian manager. As if that connection to the fourth “Rocky” film wasn’t enough, they even had to deliver the line, “Whatever Zeus hits, he kills.” Sound familiar? I know I’m thinking of a Russian super-boxer from the fourth entry of a certain film series.

“Real Steel” is the kind of sports film with the reliable clichés to depend upon. And it works because of the passion that’s put into the making of it. And the best way to make you decide whether or not you’ll enjoy this movie is to set up the climax, because the climax is nothing new, but delivers those over-the-top dramatic moments of victory. It’s the underdog story, it’s the heroes looking on and smiling, it’s the villains looking shocked as if to say, “No, that’s impossible,” and the buildup to the final round. If that interests you, or if you enjoy these kinds of heartfelt climaxes, you are going to really like this movie. This is in the great tradition of those kinds of sports movies. You either eat it up or you don’t; I just had a good time.

The special effects are incredible. I hear they mixed motion-capture CGI and animatronics for the well-designed robots and choreography for these boxing matches. It’s seamlessly effective. It really looks like the robots are really there, sparring. The “Transformers” movies don’t deliver this well, because I always felt that those giant robots were too much like CGI and I didn’t really believe they were there, nor did I care much for them either. Here, it works. And the robot Atom is pretty likable, and this brings me to write one of the strangest things I’ll write in a review probably ever—if you can make a robot likable, you have quite a movie.

But the robots don’t upstage the human actors that much. In fact, “Real Steel” is actually a character-based story with people that have purpose and dimensions. The key relationship in the movie is with stubborn, handsome, sometimes-a-jerk Charlie and young, enthusiastic, bright, sometimes-a-brat Max. These two aren’t exactly seeing eye-to-eye at first, but on the road, they develop the father/son bond that should have occurred long ago, and this is their second chance.

Hugh Jackman does what he does as Charlie—this is the kind of film role he specializes in playing. And the acting from young Dakota Goyo impresses—he’s not playing the cute-little-kid role. He has more of a personality than that. I only wish that Evangeline Kelly’s Bailey was more developed, especially since she’s introduced in her opening scenes as a strong individual. Olga Fonda has fun playing the over-the-top, grim-smiling Russian manager who loves to exploit her never-losing champion Zeus.

“Real Steel” is an appealing “Rocky for robots,” if you will, and enjoyable all the way through. If you can get into the characters, the cool fight scenes, and the effects, as well as the premise, the heart-tugging, and the ending climax, you’re most likely to enjoy this movie. It’s not great art, but it’s fun, skillful, and enjoyable.

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