Friday, October 14, 2011

Real Steel - Theatrical Review


Release Date: October 7, 2011

Every so often there is a film that comes out and defies all odds set against it by being successful despite scathing reviews and a very poor ad campaign. Real Steel is such a film, just like the characters portrayed in it's story it never really stood a chance against the big boys but when it plays to its strengths it can deliver a devastating low blow that will leave many dazed and confused as they sit in that dark theater but when its all over it leaves them wondering if what they saw was as good as they initially thought.

Review Vital Stats:  
Theater: AMC 30 at the Block in Orange
Time: 12:01 am October 7, 2011
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime: 2 hr. 6 min.
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures

Loves: Not much I'm afraid
Likes: Big robots beating the crap out of each other, Hugh Jackman
Neutral: Overly melodramatic family features
Hates: In your face product placement
Relation: None to the rock'em sock'em robot license

This movie should not be as good as it is. Let me qualify that statement real quick though, by that I mean it should not even be in the league of mediocre let alone decent entertainment. Why is that you ask? First of all you have the man behind the camera, director Shawn Levy. He was responsible for such family "classics" as The Night at the Museum (as well as it's "amazing" sequel) and the recent remakes of Cheaper by the Dozen and The Pink Panther. Those films all share two very important qualities with each other. They were all directed by Levy and they were all successful despite how horrible they were. Secondly is the it's-so-cliche-I-shouldn't-even-have-to-mention-it story with a father and son trying to reconnect after years of being apart. It isn't nearly as bad as you would think given those points but that still doesn't mean it is very good either.

It is the near future and the sport of boxing has been turned into a robots only club. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a former boxer who is down on his luck and looking for any sort of break to get him out of the mounting trouble he keeps finding himself in. He tries to pay the bills by operating one of his very own fighting robots but after a few mishaps finds himself out of options. That is until the day he receives word that his ex-wife has just passed away and that his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) is now under his care for better or worse. An opportunity arises when he discovers that Max's aunt Debra (Hope Davis) is seeking custody which he can use to blackmail her rich and unquestioning older husband for a good chunk of change. Once the deal is made it is decided that Max will stay with Charlie for the summer until Debra returns from her holiday at which time Charlie must hand Max over or else he doesn't get paid. What do you think are the chances that Charlie will discover his love for his son eventually and turn down the money by the end in return for keeping Max?

Charlie is trying to come up with a new way to ruin his life.

It really doesn't take a genius to see where this story is going. From minute one I knew what was going to happen and in what order and I wasn't even really trying to figure anything out at the time. The movie didn't peak my interest level up enough from me to care enough to activate that many brain cells but that couldn't stop me from piecing it together in a matter of minutes. The real question though is does it matter that I was able to determine its outcome as quickly as I did? I don't think so, at least I wasn't upset at the fact that the movie held no real surprises for me. In a strange way it was actually kind of comforting knowing how things were going to play out because it allowed me to sit back and enjoy the visual treats on screen.

Yes there are robots in this and they fight each other. I haven't spoken much about them up to this point because they are mostly background dressing to the father and son story going on. That's not to say they don't get their moments to shine though, the film is littered with scenes of these steel behemoths entering the ring and beating the crap out of each other. They are without a doubt the one unique thing in the entire film and I can't help but wish that they would have figured more prominently in the story being told. I like a good old fashioned family drama as much as the next guy but when you add giant boxing robots into the mix then damn right I want more of that.

The movie should have been called A Boy and His Bot.

The robots are the star of the show as far as I'm concerned even if they get only a fraction of the screen time aside from the films main mechanical pugilist named Atom (who also happens to be the least visually appealing robot in the film unfortunately). The designs themselves deserve special mention due to how unique each of them are and while there are only about half a dozen or so they are all more memorable than any of the human characters in the film. My personal favorites are Noisy Boy and Twin Cities, the last of which is a two headed robot that needs to be controlled by two individual people.

Yeah, that's right, I said they are controlled by people. You see, the film never really delves very deep into the mechanics behind the robots (for good reason because a lot of the tech in the film makes very little sense). They are controlled via remotes and some of the more unique models have the ability to shadow a person's movements or even take verbal commands. The robots all seem to have a sort of consciousness to them as well where they freely move their heads and observe their surroundings but apparently they are unable to walk or make any major movements without a command from their controller. This inherent lack of explanation is a little bit annoying and a lot disappointing when you realize that we never really get under the hood of these things because the film is always more focused on the relationship between Charlie and Max which would be fine for any other movie NOT featuring giant boxing robots.

I hope you are ready for some montage action.

The confusion only mounts when Charlie and Max discover Atom, a second generation sparring bot whom Max gets attached to quite fast. The film starts to change courses with the narrative (just for a moment) when he is introduced with a subplot involving Atom apparently having some sort of free will or understanding beyond the basic circuitry he is comprised of. There is one scene in particular that started to get me a little more interested when Max realizes that Atom is no ordinary robot and decides to keep the robot's secret safe at which point I was expecting some kind of revelation by the end that would bring this all into the forefront but alas nothing ever comes of it. It is hinted at a couple more times with a shot here and there of Atom looking as though he his thinking or acting freely but it never truly goes anywhere with it which was disappointing to say the least.

Nope, the film is content enough with the relationship between Charlie and Max. There are other wrenches thrown into the works to try and spice things up but they often times come off as even more hum drum than the main plotline. There is this really tired set up and pay off with Charlie owing some guy money and never paying up that served no real purpose other than to create an extreme low point for Charlie that would make him want to give up just when things were looking up. While I am on that subject I would like to point out just how frustrating Charlie was throughout this entire film. Talk about your bad decisions, he is worse than a child when it comes to responsibility. I know they are trying to make the point that he always acts without thinking but it often crosses the line from reckless to just plain stupid on more than one occasion.

The scenes between Charlie and Max were enjoyable enough...

Charlie loses his robot, owes out thousands of dollars in debt to everyone he knows, hits the lottery when he sells Max to his Aunt's husband (I am not exaggerating either, the point is made numerous times that Charlie sold his son, what a great dad), uses that money THE VERY NEXT DAY to buy a brand new and expensive robot and without even trying it he takes it to an underground boxing event, enters it into the main event where it proceeds to get junked just like the last one and yet he acts surprised at this. You have to wonder how Charlie ever got as far in life as he has making idiotic decisions like that ALL THE TIME. It's only when Max shows up that any sort of common sense is uttered, although Charlie's sorta kinda girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly) is getting ready to dump him if he makes one more bad decision, yeah she should have dumped his ass years ago.

Seriously, if it were not for Max then the frustration I felt towards Charlie would have been too much I think. I understand that the arc for Charlie's character was to learn from his son that he needs to slow down and look at the big picture but it felt like they went just a tad bit too far with that characterization. Besides the character of Max being a saving grace there is also the actor who played him. I have never seen Goyo in anything before (at least nothing I can recall) but he was very impressive in this. Child actors are a hard nut to crack when it comes to casting the right kid for the right part but he was the one shining light in an otherwise by the numbers performance piece from everyone else. Whenever he was on screen he took charge in every way imaginable and I couldn't have been happier because someone needed to stand up and do the job.

...but this is what we really want!

Does that mean Jackman did bad? No, he wasn't bad but he was unfortunately saddled with a very uninteresting and often times annoying character. He did what he could with the part and most of his scenes with Goyo were genuinely heartwarming but the actor didn't seem to be stretching his talent too far with this role. But I was alright with that, this wasn't a movie about any sort of deep emotional ties, like the robots themselves it was merely made to entertain and it succeeded at the barest minimum possible. When the robots take center stage it becomes a highly energetic and visually dazzlingly little film (the special effects, a nice blend of practical and CG, are actually quite astounding at times) but when the human element is front and center it turns into just about any other movie you can catch on your local family channel.

It may sound like I disliked the movie but I can't say I am upset that I saw it. I don't think it is something I would want to revisit but it is definitely something I can safely recommend to friends and family who want a film they can take their kids to for a harmless night at the movies. That is what Real Steel amounts to in the end for me, it is a giant bowl of comfort food that tastes good while your eating it but afterwards you feel kind of guilty for eating so much of it. Can you do better than Real Steel? Yes you can but you can also do a whole lot worse as well. I present Real Steel with my coveted middle of the road recommendation for anyone looking for a decent if unremarkable movie experience. I suggest that you...




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