Mark Reviews Movies

Real Steel


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Shawn Levy

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand, Hope Davis, James Rebhorn, Karl Yune, Olga Fonda

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violence, intense action and brief language)

Running Time: 2:07

Release Date: 10/7/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 6, 2011

In the near future of Real Steel, humanity has become bored with human beings pummeling each other for sport—boxing and mixed martial arts matches simply are no longer enough. The people want carnage that's still in the realm of basic morality, so they have built robots to do the dirty work. Limbs can be torn out of their sockets, punches can land until fluids pour out of an opponent, and heads can pop off and fly into the crowd. Otherwise, the world of the future seems a perfectly fine place with no discernable problems except that the local gymnasium where the hero grew up might have to be sold.

Real Steel is a movie of simple ideas and even simpler pleasures, namely one of watching robots, feet taller than the height of an average human, with names like Midas, Zeus, Noisy Boy, and Ambush pound each other into scrap. John Gatins' screenplay (loosely based on a short story by Richard Matheson) is fully mindful of its limitations and also the rationale for its spectacle.

Those aforementioned details about the history of the live-action-video-game-as-sport are unnecessary to the plot, though the way Gatins frames the description—as a commentary on the spectator's growing impatience with routine and desire for greater displays of combat—points to a self-awareness of the movie's function as hollow spectacle of visual effects. Those robots do indeed look pretty convincing, and director Shawn Levy uses both animatronic and motion-capture technology to give them weight, both of the literal (about a ton, more or less) and figurative (palpable hits, if you will) variety.

Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) used to be a boxer, and his claim to fame is that every match in which he participated ended with a knockout for himself or his opponent. That he gives it his all is the point to that piece of trivia, and now he finds himself scrounging for cash with his dwindling army of robotic fighters. At the start of the story, he has one left: a brutish, blue beast called Ambush. Charlie takes an offer to show off his last brawler at a county fair against a 2,000-pound bull. Ambush loses.

Charlie is deeply in debt and even more so after the fair, now owing another five figures to an old pugilistic rival (Kevin Durand). His oldest friend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), who owns the old gym that her father, who was like a father to Charlie, once ran, is also in financial trouble, and she might have to sell. Last on the list of woes comes when Charlie learns that an old girlfriend has died, leaving behind her son Max (Dakota Goyo), and Charlie, as the father of the boy, now legally has custody.

Gatins works hard to ensure that Charlie is as unappealing a hero as he can be—wholly irresponsible, completely stubborn, and with the immediate instinct of blackmailing his recently deceased girlfriend's sister's (Hope Davis) husband (James Rebhorn) into paying him so that they might have guardianship of Max under threat of turning his son over to the state for foster care. Charlie, like his previous robot, gets what's coming to him when Max's aunt and uncle declare that Charlie will have to watch the kid while they're away on vacation for the summer.

Max, the precocious type, knows the score and demands a cut of the money for which he was just sold. Instead, the two go out on the road, finding whatever underground robot fighting rings they can with their new discovery: a years-old sparring robot called Atom, which they find in the dump (Child endangerment is another of Charlie's virtues).

Everything that happens in the story is only a matter of course, and despite a few knowing jabs at itself (Charlie insists that Max dance with Atom when they enter the ring because the crowd loves the "kid thing"), Gatins' script strictly adheres to formula. That reliance is less engaging in the movie's interpersonal relationships, which, despite charming performances from Jackman (who manages to overcome his character's numerous flaws) and Goyo (who avoids the trap of becoming a grating "precocious kid"), are as rote as their development is inevitable. The mighty champion of the WRB (An acronym that's missing a letter any way you read it) Zeus' owner (Olga Fonda) and designer (Karl Yune) amusingly glare down at the trio of underdogs.

The stars here are the robots in all their ludicrously flashy (One has two heads for no discernable reason) or worn-down and beaten glory. Levy stages the bouts with some clean camerawork—the kind that allows the effects to take center stage as sparks fly—and if the flow of the fights is a routine reversal of downs and ups, it at least entertaining on a baseline level. Even the play-by-play commentary is kept to a minimum of redundant exposition and cheap poetics.

Real Steel hits every note it should, and that might actually be part of why it's a near-miss. The script is almost smart enough, and Levy's direction is fairly workmanlike enough. Like Atom, whose flashes of what might be consciousness add up to nothing, the movie hints at something unique just below the surface, only to dismiss it for convention.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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