17 October 2011


Why should the necessity for commercial, blockbuster films, packed with product placement and "toyetic" characters, get in the way of making a good movie? Surprisingly, that question is answered by Real Steel, a film that is essentially a formulaic sports movie about family and robots hitting each other, which still manages to be both entertaining and winsome.

The sci-fi inflection involves robot boxing, of the variety once seen on Futurama. As the lucrative promotion business transfers its money from human boxing to mechanoids, boxers like Charlie Kenton become obsolete. And so, Charlie wanders America in a van, piling up astronomical debts as a rubbish robot operator. When an ex-girlfriend passes away, and the son he has never met is placed into his custody, Charlie sells the kid, Max, to his in-laws, and grudgingly agrees to look after him until the end of the summer. The pair eventually bond over an interest in robot boxing, and Atom, a sparring robot that they restore together.

As much as I enjoyed Super 8, it's not a film that I would set apart for its imagination. While Real Steel is another film produced by Steven Spielberg, with numerous thematic debts to other films, it manages the capture that Amblin sensibility without forsaking its abundance of imagination. While Super 8 wins on points, as a more consistent and better made film, it's the robots-hitting-each-other movie, directed by Shaun Levy, of all people, that arguably has more heart. Given how the trailers do it very little justice, it's an underdog film, in a way.

Having reviewed this film for a number of different outlets now, I've thus far neglected to pay much lip service to the robot fights themselves. Achieved through motion-capture, the action sequences are a world away from the confused and characterless brawls of Michael Bay's Transformers movies. It wouldn't be cynical to suggest that the robot characters, particularly Atom, Two Cities and Midas, have been designed to sell action figures, because I bet that's exactly how they were designed. But why should that mean that the film can't use the distinctive characters and their abilities to its advantage?

The vital difference that brings these action scenes to life is the added context. When Bumblebee gets slugged in the face by a Decepticon, all it means is that Shia LaBeouf is going to squeal or yell at somebody again. When Atom's in the ring, fighting much bigger and advanced robots, the film has established what it means to Charlie and Max. We're not looking at a second-generation version of The Iron Giant here, with the robot having a soul, or even a personality, but instead a Spielbergian story about the restoration of the father.

Charlie's otherwise predictable redemptive arc is made that much more powerful by the fact that he is a complete arsehole when we meet him. He's not merely a Disney dad, or even a deadbeat dad, but a complete lowlife. His subsequent bonding with Max might be seen as schmaltzy by some, but let's not understate how well the film brings him around from being a dislikeable bumbag, who we first meet as he attempts to profit from animal cruelty. It's an unusual role for Hugh Jackman, and he plays it well enough to assure that he clearly has a future on the blockbuster A-list if he chooses to hang up the adamantium claws any time soon.

As Max, Dakota Goyo isn't nearly as annoying as you might fear, but you may have to suspend disbelief for how precocious he is, particularly when engineering Atom. In any case, he builds a pretty good chemistry with Jackman, which is pivotal in the ongoing family arc. The film also borrows from any number of other sports movies, specifically Rocky and The Champ,  but John Gatins' smart and unassuming script makes it all far more engaging than you would expect.

Real Steel has its share of missteps, and the work that has to be put into persuading those who saw the trailer to be less sceptical about it comes dangerously close to over-hyping what is essentially a rock-solid three star family movie. But without a doubt, it is gun-for-hire Shaun Levy's finest film, and there's an awful lot to enjoy here. It doesn't plumb the depths of nostalgia, nor does it pander to studio shareholders. Putting this much effort into a big, dumb (not stupid) family-friendly blockbuster never hurt the box office receipts, so this one is well worth checking out.

Real Steel is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Real Steel, why not share your comments below? Although it appears to be Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots: The Movie, it's actually based on Steel, a short story by Richard Matheson. Steel was also adapted on The Simpsons, one time. Wow, between that and Futurama, Matt Groening has this covered...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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