Thursday, February 23, 2012

Real Steel Movie Review

Real Steel takes a rather unbelievable premise and turns it into some kind of Over the Top retread. Okay, that’s a flippant comparison because after taking a guy who drives a truck around the country to participate in a competition that must appeal to a niche market and throwing in that guy’s estranged son into the mix until they forge the bonds of a relationship there’s not much to compare really. It also must be said that Real Steel is a far better film than that dreadful Sylvester Stallone vehicle from the 80s.

Now the studly and handsome Hugh Jackman takes the place of the rugged deadbeat dad in a not very distant future when robot boxing grips the nation and pays sweet dividends including in unofficial bouts that take place in warehouses and outdoor arenas that resemble those from ancient Rome. Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a rogue type who owes money all over the place because he can’t turn down a high stakes bet when it’s dangled in front of him. This causes him to lose his robot, one of many machines that tower at least four feet over the tallest humans, and gets him further into hock and fleeing.

Suddenly he’s approached about the death of an old girlfriend who leaves behind an 11-year-old boy named Max (Dakota Goyo), one of those annoying Hollywood movie kids who says sarcastic and precocious things that are supposed to be funny by virtue of the fact that they’re spoken by a child. Charlie just has to turn up at court to sign away his parental rights so the boy’s aunt Debra (Hope Davis) and her wealthy husband Marvin (James Rebhorn) can take him in and raise him right. Conveniently, Debra and Marvin have a summer vacation to Italy already planned and Marvin strikes a deal with Charlie to take the boy for two months and $100K. Charlie takes this money to buy an expensive robot to take on the circuit and make some quick cash to pay down his debts. Of course his hubris gets the best of him again and his robot takes a heavy beating.

One night fate delivers to Charlie and Max an old sparring ‘bot named Atom. Outfitted with the voice recognition technology from their previous fighter they figure to make a killing if the plan works. Of course they go on a nice win streak and attract the attention of the world’s premier robot designer Tak Mashido (Karl Yune) and his highly advanced robot, Zeus, that learns as it fights. When we first meet Tak and his beautiful specimen we know instantly that Atom and Zeus are going to meet in a final climactic battle before a crowd of thousands and more than just money will be riding on the outcome.

As directed by Shawn Levy Real Steel is sufficiently entertaining almost in spite of itself. I will give it that much. It’s light on its feet and never takes itself too seriously. He does all the right things in the big crowd scenes to get the audience riled up and cheering for Charlie and Max and their robot even if I found it excruciating the way every owner who loses to Max’s robot proceeds to screech and howl in disbelief with an expression of shock so unbelievably bad you might think you’re watching a Saturday morning cartoon. By the time this happened the third time, I was way past the point of finding it interesting.

The screenplay by John Gatins from a story by Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven (all loosely based on a Richard Matheson short story) fails because it asks us to buy into a premise that just seems so impossible to accept. We are meant to believe that the general public would accept a sports contest between two fighting robots in the same we now accept boxing, wrestling, or martial arts and the same we humanity has historically gotten behind other contests involving displays of physical prowess. It’s not that I have trouble believing that a reasonably strong following could grow around feats of technological prowess such as is demonstrated by these robots, but that there would be enough money in it to make it economically feasible for competitors to lose the use of a machine worth tens of thousands of dollars and to provide payouts as large or larger for such displays.

I said it’s an entertaining movie and I stand by that. The action and fight scenes kept me interested and I think that is mainly to do with the wonderful visual effects that seamlessly blend CGI, motion capture, and animatronics. These robots always looked real enough (at least on my very old tube television reproducing old school DVD) that I was never taken out of the story. No, it was the story itself that did that for me.

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