Thursday, January 26, 2012

Movie Review: Real Steel

Real Steel
Directed by Shawn Levy
Running Time: 127 minutes
Originally Released: October 7, 2011

* * ½ (out of four)

In the far distant future – the year 2020 to be precise – there aren’t any boxing champions. Not human boxing champions, anyway. The human version of the sport has gone extinct, with robot boxing now ruling the ring. Of course, the robot competitors are owned by humans, and depending on how fancy one’s robot is, it will require more or less directional input from a human during the fight. The most sophisticated robots can learn and adapt to their opponent’s fighting style, running mostly on autopilot, while a bare bones model must be remotely controlled from the sidelines. Regardless, human audiences love watching two bots get into the ring and fight to the virtual death. It is the human desire for total and mass destruction that has given rise to the robot boxing phenomenon in the first place.

Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a former human fighter who, now that the robot leagues have taken over, manages robots on the amateur circuit. Charlie is something of a con man, or perhaps just absurdly optimistic, making bets he can’t afford to lose but typically does. It leaves him scurrying, continuously looking for a win while attempting to avoid the wrath of those he has swindled. Charlie also has an estranged 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), who comes into his life after Max’s mother dies. When Max’s well-to-do aunt Debra (Hope Davis) expresses interest in adopting the boy, Charlie sees it as another moneymaking opportunity. He makes a backdoor deal with Debra’s husband Marvin (James Rebhorn) to sign over custodial rights for $100,000. Marvin agrees, on the condition that Charlie keep Max for the summer and thereby not upset the aunt’s and uncle’s travel plans.

It isn’t long before Max demonstrates a knack for robot boxing himself. The boy salvages an old-school robot from a junkyard and begins competing against more advanced robots, scoring a surprising string of victories along the way. Atom, Max’s robot, soon draws national attention, soliciting ire not only from Charlie’s past opponents, but from the team behind robot boxing’s most famous fighter, the undefeated Zeus, whom Max publicly challenges to a duel.

Real Steel is brought to you by director Shawn Levy, whose résumé includes Just Married, the 2006 reboot of The Pink Panther, Date Night, and the two Night at the Museum movies. It is safe to say that Levy specializes in making movies that are meant to have mass appeal and suffer because of it. Indeed, the list of unflattering adjectives that can be used to describe Real Steel is extensive: hokey, corny, formulaic, predictable, and uninspired, just to name a few. And yet for all of that, it is nigh unto impossible to watch the movie without rooting for Atom’s (and Max’s, and thus even Charlie’s) success.  It is also a surprisingly stunning film visually, and not just during the special effect-laden robot fight sequences that have garnered the film an Oscar nomination. Mauro Fiore, who himself won an Oscar for his work as cinematographer on Avatar, endows the film with absorbent colors and picturesque landscapes that help to elevate the film beyond its mediocre core.

Acting isn’t what this movie is about, so it is probably pointless to mention it as I am about to do. That being said, Jackman does an adequate job, as does Lost’s Evangeline Lilly as Bailey, the obligatory love interest who is also the daughter of Charlie’s deceased boxing trainer. Lilly’s role is excess baggage, but to be expected in a film that flaunts rather than flouts convention. Meanwhile, Goyo is neither as charming nor as grating as many child actors, though he would much more easily fall into the latter category than into the former. Viewers may be reminded of Jake Lloyd, the heavily derided actor who played young Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace. Throw in a dash of Jodie Foster (both in terms of looks and in terms of talent), and you’ve got Goyo. It’s not a flattering comparison, but it’s suitable.

Real Steel is based on a short story from science fiction writer Richard Matheson. Matheson’s novels and stories have been adapted into numerous movies over the years, from Somewhere in Time to What Dreams May Come to I Am Legend. (Matheson has also written or co-written several screenplays, including Jaws 3-D and the Gene Hackman / Dan Aykroyd comedy Loose Cannons.) Despite its more prestigious origins, Real Steel ultimately plays out like a big screen adaptation of Rock’em Sock’em Robots—a none-too-ridiculous notion considering that a Battleship movie is set to hit theaters this summer. Though there is no official tie in with the 1960s game, I imagine those with a fondness for Rock’em Sock’em Robots will enjoy Real Steel more than anyone else could. Only a lightweight will be knocked out by the film, but there are worse ways to spend two hours.

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