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Movie Review: Real Steel (2011)

Posted By: Lawrence Napoli
Tue, 10/11/2011 - 22:46

Boxing Gold With a Jackman Twist

A Film Review of Real Steel

By: Lawrence Napoli


pic You know why Hollywood loves to make boxing films?  It’s because fictional boxing offers up one of the most desirable story types that consistently resonate as fiercely positive with any audience: the redemption of an underdog.  Normal people have lots of very real problems and complications that manifest daily and stand in the way of one’s progress/survival.  We can appreciate and identify with the underdog.  Celebrities, politicians and the super wealthy cannot.  Another reason why a wider demographic is drawn to boxing films is that they are, generally speaking, simple stories that focus on one character, sets a world of opposition against that character who then progresses on a journey of empowerment that compels warm hearted people to root for his or her success.  You know another thing that’s common about boxing films?  They aren’t particularly innovative, and really the massive success of the Rocky franchise is to blame.  As formulaic as the Hollywood machine is, no one is eager to tamper with the ABC’s of making the green in the squared circle.  Then a film like Real Steel comes along, and only upon completing this cinematic adventure does one comprehend the static shock of adrenaline that elevates any genre of film to a different level when the intelligent incorporation of atypical elements are applied. 

Writers John Gatins, Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven deliver a very prototypical boxer’s story with a healthy dose of this genre’s stereotypical conventions.  Main character suffers from self doubt?  Check.  Nobody save one believes in him or her?  Check.  Training sequences?  Count it.  Is family drama involved?  You betcha!  So far, this film would seem right in line with The Fighter, Million Dollar Baby and The Champ, but wait; there is a significant sci-fi element at play in Real Steel.  Although Hugh Jackman plays the main character who is a former boxer, he doesn’t do any actual boxing nor does he subject his already chiseled body to the rigors of hellish exercise followed up with an impromptu romp on the beach with his training buddies.  No, this slightly futuristic world has a new social fixation that satiates the spectator’s desire for violence, action and competition: robot boxing.  I know, I know, it does sound a bit hoaky, but understanding current video game culture and its ever increasing popularity gives credence to the real satisfaction that results from simulated violence.  The robots are not independent AI’s that do their masters’ bidding, merely remote controlled by human handlers in some way so as to give any bot a chance against another that may or may not have better parts, programming, etc.  It is the human element that not only gives life to this fictional sport, but also infuses the script with an undeniable pulse that allows even a slightly skewed boxing film to do what all great boxing films do: reveal itself to be an emotional drama.

This, of course, hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell at succeeding without a cast that is willing to be serious with the material and truly subject themselves to the plight of their characters.  Most of the credit goes to Mr. Hugh Jackman, an actor that has thrived in films that cherish pop/geek culture, dabbled in romantic comedies and provided solid, yet overlooked performances in strict dramas.  Although he looks every bit the quintessential movie star, his attitude and real world demeanor set him apart as a non-phony, and he certainly carries this over to his performance as Charlie Kenton in Real Steel.  For a man that has an all but perfect body, he allows his facial expressions to do the majority of the talking.  Of course he can deliver intensity with the best of them (and rightly so; he only played Wolverine in 5 films thus far), but he’s no Marky Mark.  Jackman is equally effective in scenes that require his character to be angered and frustrated, but also saddened and at a complete loss, happy and excited, loyal and centered.  Jackman treats the audience with a very authentic performance that manages to sample a large spectrum of the emotional wheel in a film, despite it having been released this weekend, wreaks of summer popcorn frivolity.  Dakota Goyo plays Jackman’s son, and he manages to produce a very charismatic performance in a supporting role, but let’s just say he’s not quite on the same level as the Fanning sisters yet.  Evangeline Lilly once again eases her way into the role as the sexy girlfriend/confidant/mentor, but unfortunately, amounts to little more than window dressing because her character just doesn’t get enough screen time.

Make no mistake, Steven Spielberg as one of the executive producers for this film was very smart in delaying the release of this film so as to not butt heads with the big boys of the summer.  That’s not to say that Real Steel would not have been able to compete because it is certainly better than half of the summer releases.  However, this film would have lost too many tickets to competitors because it is not the same high level of branded media like most comic book adaptations and sequels.  Come to think of it, Spielberg was also a producer for Super 8, another sci-fi-ish hybrid film that boasted an extremely minimal advertising budget.  I am uncertain whether I respect him more as a filmmaker for allowing the audience to make what they want of his films and not be told they should love it in commercials, or less by not fronting a more suitable effort to promote his IP beyond his own published attachment to the film itself as an arrogant display of “I’m Steven Spielberg, people come to see my films if I’m credited as the janitor!”  As of October 7, 2011 neither nor list an estimate for the budget of this film, but I will be very surprised if it even approached the $100 million dollar level.  This film is certainly driven by a large amount of special and practical effects to make the fighting robots look and feel as realistic as possible, but the scope of this film is very limited to the personal journey of the two main characters.  The robot fights are strictly 1 on 1, so wide angle eye candy will not be served during any course in the consumption of this film.

As for the action, I must say that it isn’t quite as thrilling as I would have liked it to be, but is a necessary hindering because despite the futuristic look and destructive force of these robots, they’re simply elaborate RC cars.  Thus, the robots in Real Steel move and fight more like clunky blocks of metal as opposed to the wire-work ballet of The Matrix.  Clearly, the goal of the various effects departments was to highlight the impact blows in every robot fight and those are quite satisfying to watch.  The graphic design for some of the robots is unique in some kind of a throwback nod to Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots on steroids, but none would be considered as that which you haven’t seen before.  Perhaps a more avante garde aesthetic would have pushed the effects budget well into the red, but the bots look clean and realistic enough to pass off as current generation CG.  Dialing up the intensity meter during the robot fights would have certainly helped in counter-balancing the tempered, dramatic pace throughout.  Intensity, however, is not a word I would equate with this film.  It seems like a fairly tame PG-13 rating due to some language issues (no F-bombs here) up to one particular violent scene in the film which would reveal too much by describing.  Let’s just say that the scene will be over quickly and younger children that may or may not be in attendance will process it, accept it and move on. 

When push comes to shove, Real Steel is still a Disney production, and they tend to error on the side of caution more often than not when it comes to their movies.  Even if the Disney executives in charge of this production were feeling like taking more risks in the storytelling process, this wasn’t the kind of film to get frisky with.  Blending sci-fi with boxing was certainly complicated enough, and overall, I would say they were successful in not making this film seem cheesy.  It kicks just enough ass to communicate the story in an entertaining fashion without making me ask myself, “Shouldn’t Hugh Jackman be doing a film that’s more worthwhile than this?”  Real Steel is worth seeing and perhaps even more so if you have kids that like robots.  Using robot boxing as a gimmick to get the audience to buy into the complex relationship between the father and son characters sheds more light on the growing contemporary trend of non-nuclear families.  Although this film won’t be winning any Academy Awards, it carries a very important message in regards to the concept of family, regardless of its quantitative makeup: Family is worth fighting for because love is worth fighting for.