Friday, October 7, 2011

Rock 'Em Sock 'Em: REAL STEEL

Real Steel takes place in a time in the near future, a mere fourteen years from now, when boxing will become a sport of the past. Because of an ever increasing audience demand for carnage and destruction – the boxing equivalent of going to NASCAR for the crashes – and because of leaps and bounds in the field of robotics, boxing will be a sport for souped-up humanoid robots, controlled by their owners to beat each other until sparks and oil splatter all over the ropes. This is miles from Robot Wars a TV show from about a decade ago that sent what were essentially Roombas with rotary saws crashing into each other. The boxing of Real Steel is boxing as we know it today with the same rules and the same rings, but the athletes have gone the way of the factory worker. Instead of testing the limits of the human body, robot boxing tests the limits of cold, hard steel. It’s a wonder the crowds at these events aren’t wearing earplugs.

The film follows a down-on-his-luck, debt-burdened robot manager (Hugh Jackman) who just can’t catch a break. In the opening scene, he pulls up to a small town fair where he’s hoping to make a little money by pitting his fighter against a bull and wagering a sizable sum with the event’s promoters. Minutes later, his robot’s impaled by a horn and scattered across the arena. The promoters expect him to pay up so he skips town. As he’s escaping, he receives word that his old girlfriend has died, which leaves the eleven-year-old son (Dakota Goyo) he’s never met in need of a guardian. Pulling up to the courthouse, he convinces his ex’s sister (Hope Davis) to give him a few months with his son, just for the summer.

This seems like two disparate plotlines, but they’re drawn together when the boy shows a talent for helping his dad, and his dad’s robo-gym landlord (Evangeline Lilly), work to get their robots in fighting shape. (It’s explained away with an off-handed reference to video games, ‘cause kids like those, right?) So the working-poor underdog, a former human pugilist who has found his talent displaced and unexploited, struggling to make ends meet and turn his life around, is encouraged by his son to try one last time to make a go of robot boxing. It’s not too subtle, but I liked how the robots become metaphors through which the father and son work out their individual problems and eventually bond. But the old fighting robot has been rendered unusable by a bull’s goring, so first they need to find a ‘bot. Then, they need to get him to fight with the best of them.

It’s a testament to the power of clich├ęs done right that the film works so well. The two appealing performances from the leads ground the proceedings in a nice, heightened Hollywood approximation of human emotion. Jackman, with plenty of big star-power charisma, and Goyo, with engaging boyish energy, play off each other well. The remarkable blend of practical and digital effects works well for the robots. The believable blending between the worlds of man and machine creates a reasonably credible, if more than a little silly, sci-fi world for what is essentially a standard boxing movie.

The movie’s screenplay comes from John Gatins who has two baseball movies, one basketball movie, and a horseracing movie to his credit. He knows just the path to set the movie on and piles up the conflict in the usual ways. The underestimated little robot the father-son duo finds, fixes, and trains works his way up the ranks. They start in gritty underground matches played against scary punks with no rules in roadside bars, dark clubs and back-alley warehouses, before they fight their way into higher stakes and bigger money. In solid sports movie fashion, the stakes grow as we charge forward to the Big Fight with a popular, scary champion with boo-worthy corporate backers. Each new match makes the widescreen spectacle all the more eye-catching with massive crowds, large stadiums, and plenty of neon lighting and pounding bass. It may be a bit predictable (when it comes to figuring out where this goes, do you need a roadmap?) but it’s also enjoyable. I found the matches just as, if not more, thrilling and involving as any of the fights in last year’s Oscar-winning boxing movie The Fighter.

The sci-fi specifics may be a little fuzzy, the characters archetypes, and the plot a compilation of sports film’s greatest moments, but Real Steel is a big pleasing popcorn movie. It’s loud and kind of dumb, but it’s also appealing, exciting, and more or less satisfying. Director Shawn Levy, he of the Cheaper by the Dozen and Pink Panther remakes and two Night at the Museum movies, has stepped out of his (bad) family-comedy comfort zone to make a comfortable big budget picture. With its warm father-son dynamic and surprisingly convincing robot effects deployed for a sturdy formula adequately told, the film has a pleasant feel. The look is glossy and confident. The pace is brisk but deliberate yet exciting. It’s a fun entertainment machine, an enjoyable couple of hours that tells a story through robots beating the living steel out of each other for characters I cared about. 

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