MOVIE REVIEW: Real Steel
REAL STEEL-- 3 STARS
Hollywood has been involved lately in a somewhat weird trend of turning toys, games, and cartoons from our 1970s and 1980s childhood into feature films. You know the list: the Transformers series, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Masters of the Universe, the pair of Alvin and the Chipmunks and Garfield movies, The Smurfs from this summer, and now Real Steel, based on the old "Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em" robot boxing game. To some people, mostly kids who are too young to remember the original source, it's a treat to see something benign and retro come to life. To others, mostly those who lived and loved the original incarnations (including this reviewer), Hollywood is ruining their childhood.
This odd trend of movies fit somewhere in the large canyon between comic book movies, movies based on video games, and adapting Jane Austin and William Shakespeare. Studios must be running out of bad novels to adapt. What's next Hungry Hungry Hippos from the makers of Anaconda? I'll warn you. The trend is still coming. Next year, you're getting Liam Neeson and Taylor Kitsch in Battleship from the director of Collateral and Friday Night Lights.
Can you picture Liam Neeson's gruff delivery of the "You sank my battleship!" line? Yeah, me neither. If that's not enough iconic Gladiator and Alien director Ridley Scott has been flirting with developing Monopoly for years and, elsewhere, Twilight "himbo" Taylor Lautner is signed on to to play Stretch Armstrong. Eye roll. Loud groan. Face palm. Yeah, I hear you. Every single one of those movie premises sound terrible, preposterous, and just plain stupid. For proof, just watch the last two Transformers movies and try just sitting through the trailer for Alvin and the Chipmunks without dry heaving. Is there any hope for a good movie to come out of any of them? You know what? There is. Real Steel is the real deal with real cheers, real punch, and real fun.
Australian superstar Hugh Jackman stars as Charlie Kenton, a former boxer in the year 2020, who, after too many knockouts, too many bad bets, and a changing sport where robots have replaced people in the ring, is a down-on-his-luck "trainer" and operator of a fighting robot. Living out of his truck and borrowing from a former flame (Lost's Evangeline Lilly), he scrapes by trying to make it big in his second chance at boxing fame. His world flips when his forgotten and discarded 11-year-old son, Max (newcomer Dakota Goyo), is dropped in his care for the summer when his mother passes away.
Lone wolf Charlie is forced to take him on and finds out his son is pretty well-versed in the robot fight game himself. By chance, Max discovers, "Atom," an old generation sparring robot, built to take a lot of punishment and mimic moves visually, and convinces Charlie to make something of it. Soon, Max's dedication and attachment to the robot combines with Charlie's natural boxing skill to make Atom quite a competitor in the ring, enough to rise through the ranks and maybe make a big time fight.
As hokey as that sounds, Real Steel will catch you with a body blow of father-son emotion, borrowing heavily (in this reviewer's opinion) from Sylvester Stallone's arm-wrestling saga Over the Top in that regard. Jackman and Goyo have great chemistry and the little guy carries a lot of showmanship to rival Wolverine. Though it also steals a truckload of cliches from classic underdog tales, especially Rocky (naturally), Real Steel has great fight action that will get your pulse going and grab your rooting spirit. Much like his own Jurassic Park, executive producer Steven Spielberg insisted director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) use actual moving-and-shaking animatronic robots as much as possible over total CGI. The result of physical models and motion-capture movement is seamless and extremely impressive.
Adding all of that up, Real Steel is as crowd-pleasing as it is preposterous. Even if the melodrama, spirit, and emotions are as manufactured and controlled as the robots themselves, I have to admit that they work to create a fun and charming ride that pops off of the big screen and booms in IMAX. Don't get me wrong. Real Steel will never compete with the Rocky series, either version of The Karate Kid, this fall's terrific MMA-focused Warrior, or even the aforementioned Over the Top. Real human fighters and flesh-and-blood underdog stories will always be better, but Real Steel is still an unexpected good time.
LESSON #1: A MAN CAN BE A FATHER, BUT IT TAKES A REAL MAN TO BE A DAD-- That classic anonymous quote fits Charlie and Max's struggle well. After abandoning him at birth, selling his custody, and more, Charlie learns this all too well over the course of the movie.
LESSON #2: ONE MAN'S TRASH IS ANOTHER MAN'S TREASURE-- With robot fighters that get beaten to pieces, good "trainers" like Charlie and Max need to also have NASCAR pit crew skills partnered with the ability to adapt and scrap with spare parts. Our hero, Atom, was a forgotten sparring bot that, with a little spit, glue, and modification turned into something special.
LESSON #3: LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON-- The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Though they are new to each other, Max has every bit of Charlie's impulsiveness, ingenuity, grit, and courage. It gets them both into trouble, but serves them well too.
LESSON #4: EVERYONE LOVES AN UNDERDOG-- As aforementioned, Real Steel borrows a great deal from Rocky and other classic cinematic underdog stories. Hey, force-fed or not, it's effective and it sells. Everybody loves those movies.
LESSON #5: CAN ARTIFICIAL VIOLENCE CARRY OVER INTO REAL VIOLENCE?-- I present this final lesson as more of a question and debate topic. While watching Real Steel, you learn very early on that the public that populate the movie have a voracious appetite for violence and carnage, even if it is artificial. At what point does "Rip his head off!" change from a cheer to a warning sign? I don't mean to sound like a teacher (which I am) or a parent (which I'm not), but the impressionable glorification of violence in Real Steel could, in its own way, parallel the concern people have at cartoon, TV, and video game violence. Hey, I cheered too, but I'm just saying.