Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Real Steel

When you hear the term 'fighting giant robots' you immediately picture Michael Bay's Transformers Trilogy but this is definitely not that. Real Steel is definitely a different brand of metal-on-metal action. Based on Richard Matheson’s 1956 short story “Steel,” Real Steel isn’t an action adventure about giant war robots, it’s a much more intimate story about an estranged father and son – as well as their not-so-giant boxing robot.

The greatest achievement in Shawn Levy’s Real Steel is building the world of robot boxing. The term “robot boxing” sounds incredibly stupid when you hear it and flashes of Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots. But Levy does a tremendous job for showing not just the hi-tech wonder of the World Boxing Organization (WBO), but he takes us to the back-alleys, run-down theme parks, and country fairs where a punching robot and its owner can make some cash and win some glory. Paired with well-choreographed fights that wisely make heavy use of animatronics and practical effects, Real Steel almost has an unbeatable combination.

Charlie Keaton (Hugh Jackman), former boxer had to step outside the ring to make his living off the boxing robots that basically took his job. However, his impatience, ineptitude, and poor business acumen have left him heavily in debt and scrambling to find any robot that can put up a fight. Lucky for Charlie, his ex-girlfriend dies and he finds a chance to make some quick money by selling custody of his estranged son Max (Goyo) to Max’s aunt (Hope Davis) and her rich husband (James Rebhorn). Charlie cuts a deal to take Max over the summer while the aunt and uncle go to Italy and when they come back, Charlie gets the rest of his money, Max doesn’t have to put up with his deadbeat father, and everyone is happy. But the father-son duo get behind ATOM, a sparring bot and well well well they finally begin to bond with Max providing the voice of reason against Charlie’s general incompetence.
There have been a lots of attempts at such a story but keep all that aside. The real reason for the success of Real Steel is the chemistry between the father-son duo of Jackman and Goyo. As mentioned, there are some self-indulgent moments and the progression is probably going to be pretty predictable for anyone who has ever seen an estranged father/son relationship in a film before, but Real Steel deserves a lot of credit for not gumming up the plot with too much melodrama. The relationship is worked into the story in a competent way – it’s rarely manipulative and both parties are instrumental in moving the story forward, not just reacting to external events. It doesn’t hurt that Jackman and Goyo, unlike many onscreen father/son combos, actually have believable chemistry – which helps elevate the tension and/or humor in several key scenes.

And no doubt the biggest and some of the best sequences come from the robot vs. robot action. For the most part these sequences live up to expectation with some very believable CGI work as well as an enjoyable mix of robots that each feature different fighting styles. While not every bot is as interesting as some of the featured fighters, each of the combatants offers a different insight into the world of Real Steel. Whether competing in underground fighting arenas, backyard brawls, or the glitz and glamor of an official WRB ring, it’s clear that Levy wanted the robots to flesh out this near-future world – not just beat each other into nuts and bolts. Unfortunately besides the few glimpses on the robot boxing levels we are not shown as to the back story for the development of the scenario. 
While the lack of information does make for compelling Real Steel 2 potential, there’s no doubt the current narrative gets short-shrift and some of the established plot lines could’ve been more fully realized in this film. It isn’t a case of unreasonable expectations or wishing Levy had gone deeper into unexplored mythology, it’s a matter of wanting the film to address existing story threads, instead of intentionally withholding, just to have a starting point for a sequel.

But the real question is if this new flick is going to survive or not.....and the answer is yes. Story and characters are the most important elements of almost any movie, and they’re serviceable enough to make Real Steel function. There’s not a disinterest in those crucial elements as much as poor execution through sloppy dialogue. Thankfully, the movie plays to its strengths by bringing the audience into a rich and fascinating world filled with exhilarating fight scenes. Despite a few problems in there Real Steel proves a great entertainment movie. That is clean and family oriented.


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