Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Here's the Deal on REAL STEEL ...


- Do you ever sit back, pop in a DVD of a cheesy-yet-beloved 80's classic like The Wizard or Over The Top, and wonder: "why don't they make movies like this anymore?" If yes, then REAL STEEL is the movie you've been waiting for. Unabashadly cheesy, sentimental, and (no pun intended ... oh hell, pun intended) over the top, Real Steel copies the formula of countless 80's underdog-competition movies and mixes it with a dash of sci-fi. The movie has a lot of issues, but it's hard to not be won over by its positive spirit and boundless energy. Real Steel is cinematic junkfood, but man, it sure is fun. If only it had an appropriately cheesy, 80's-style theme song ("You're the best! Around!") ... well, that would have been the icing on the cake.

Real Steel tells a classic underdog-boxing sort of story, but with a robotic twist. Interestingly, the script is actually a very loose adaptation of an old Richard Matheson story, that was at one point adapted into an episode of The Twilight Zone (then called simply "Steel"). But here, we're in the near future, where traditional mano e mano boxing has been outlawed, and in its place, fight fans gather to watch giant robots (remote-controlled by humans) bash the ever-loving crap out of each other inside the squared circle. Robot boxing is the name of the game. Enter ex-actual-boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman). He's a down-on-his-luck hustler who travels around to out-of-the-way carnivals and such, with his trusty robot in tow. Charlie is far from the big-time though - his robot is fighting in sketchy 'bot vs. animal fights and things like that (I was sort of shocked we actually saw an extended robot vs. bull fight in the movie's opening!). Charlie is living a carnie-sort-of-life on the road, only occasionally spending time with his on-again, off-again special lady friend, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly). Bailey owns and maintains her father's old gym, but has fallen on hard times - essentially operating a museum now that plain-old human fighters are an endangered species.

However, Charlie's vagabond lifestyle changes course when the mother of his estranged son dies in an accident. Suddenly left with custody of his young son, Max, Charlie is at first reluctant to care for the grieving boy. But as it turns out, Max is a huge robot-fight-fan (and really, what eleven year old boy wouldn't be?). As luck would have it, Max stumbles upon an old, junked-out fighter-bot one night, an outdated model sent to the scrapyard. However, Max sees some hidden potential in the old metalhead, especially with regards to the fact that it's got a mimic function, where it can emulate the movements of its human controller. So, like the ultimate game of Wii or Kinect, this bot gains a leg-up on the more advanced competition through Charlie's old boxing prowess being utilized. Of course, much father-son bonding occurs, and before you know it we're in a huge tournament, with Charlie and Max pitted against a fearsomely sleek Japanese bot for all the marbles.

It's all a bit ridiculous, and the movie never really delves in to how, exactly, Charlie and Max are able to compete against more advanced robots. If the mimic function is so effective when controlled by a human fighter, then why hadn't others tried it before? But this isn't really a movie about logic, strategy, or any sort of realism or plausibility. No, it's about an abrasive Hugh Jackman getting in touch with his inner fighting spirit, bonding with his young son, and overcoming the odds in classic cinematic fashion. The movie starts out a bit slow, and takes a while to rev up ... but once it gets to the big, Rocky-with-robots-esque fight scenes, it becomes so gloriously cheesy that you can't help but smile. Director Shawn Levy (of Night at the Museum fame) does a nice job of mixing straightforward, almost 80's-esque direction with bouts of slick action - and even some rather painterly, Spielbergian scenes of robot-and-boy bonding (perhaps that's the influence of exec-producer Spielberg shining through - and indeed, this feels like an 80's-era Speilberg-produced family flick).

The real standout here is young Dakota Goyo as Max. Dakota basically steals the movie, and plays one of the more entertaining kid characters in a movie of this sort in a long while. Dakota totally sells all the mushy stuff with his long-lost dad, but he also is so wildly enthusiastic and energetic during the big fight scenes that it's infectious. That said, Hugh Jackman also does a nice job as Charlie. He's appropiately gruff and short-tempered when we first meet him, but eventually evolves into the kind of born-again-good-dad that, dammit all, wins us jaded filmgoers over. Evangeline Lilly, meanwhile, doesn't have a ton to work with - we never quite understand the nature of her relationship with Jackman - but, she makes the most of the material. It's great seeing her again though post-Lost - she really should be in more movies.

I do think the movie fumbles a bit with its villains. Another Lost alum, Kevin Durand, is never used to his full potential as a smarmy rival to Jackman. Anthonie Mackie, so good in movies like The Hurt Locker, has a brief and somewhat forgettable role as a colorful robot-fight promoter. And the enigmatic robot-champion maestro, Tak Mashido, seems like he has a lot of potential for badassery, as played by Karl Yune. But, he doesn't get much depth, and so remains thoroughly one-dimensional.

That said, REAL STEEL is, at the end of the day, a pretty simple underdog story about a boy reconnecting with his father, and participating in a robot fighting championship. The movie doesn't really do a great job with all the other stuff it throws into the mix, but when it focuses in on the core theme and the core premise, it's incredibly fun and likable. For kids, I think this movie will become an instant and fondly remembered favorite. For adults, this will be a cheesy but fun nostalgia-trip to a simpler cinematic era. And for that reason, Real Steel can be considered, at least partly, a rock-'em, sock-'em success.

My Grade: B+

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