A film review by Craig J. Koban October 13, 2011
2011, PG-13, 126 mins.
2011, PG-13, 126 mins.
Hugh Jackman: Charlie Kenton / Dakota Goyo: Max / Evangeline Lilly: Bailey / Anthony Mackie: Finn / Hope Davis: Deborah / James Rebhorn: Marvin / Kevin Durand: Ricky / Olga Fonda: Russian Robot Owner / Karl Yune: Tak
Directed by Shawn Levy / Written by John Gatins, based on the short story "Steel" by Richard Matheson
REAL STEEL commits
many sins, but one of the oddest is that it combines some of the worst
clichés and conventions from films like ROCKY
and OVER THE TOP and mixes them with boxing robots that have replaced
human beings in the near future.
Alongside the utter silliness of its premise is some eye-rollingly
ham-infested melodrama involving a sentimental, heart-tugging story of a
once estranged father and son coming together…via their mutual love of
machine on machine combat.
It goes without saying that REAL STEEL is preposterous, but the
film at least tries to be original.
Its chief problem, though, is that it's so mournfully contrived
and scripted from the get-go; the screenplay is as artificially cobbled
together as any of the pugilist ‘bots that populate it.
REAL STEEL is
amazingly based on a short 1956 story called STEEL by Richard Matheson
(unread by me) and co-produced by the likes of Oscar winning filmmakers
Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg.
It’s easy to deduce that the film essentially uses the basic idea
from Matheson’s literary antecedent as a springboard to portray the
spectacle of robots duking it out in the squared circle amidst a would-be
touching and endearing father-and-son story of reconcilement.
The premise itself is, as stated, bizarre, but even more bizarre
is how little actual dramatic resonance the film contains.
REAL STEEL is essentially more of a synthetic and manipulative
construct than it is a really emotionally absorbing experience
The year is 2020 and humans
have been forced out of the boxing racket, for reasons never thoroughly or
acceptably explained, other than in some painfully articulated expository
dialogue that tries to offer an explanation.
Instead, society has falling in love with 2000-pound,
eight-to-ten-foot tall automatons that are controlled, either by voice or
through joysticks, by their human owners that all hope to score big
paydays with each win. One
of these owner/operators is Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) a once
up-and-comer boxer that had is career cut short. Now, he hustles in illegal underground robot boxing matches
to score some quick dough in order to pay off his various debts to loan
While Charlie is on the run
from those that would carve him into pieces to get their money, he learns
of the death of his ex-girlfriend and that his 11-year-old son that he
barely knows, Max (Dakota Goyo), is now caught in a legal conundrum as to
whether he belongs with Charlie or his Aunt Debra (Hope Davis) and his
very rich Uncle Marvin (James Rebhorn).
They want to adopt their nephew, but Charlie has legal rights to
the boy, but he is not too morally righteous to refuse the $100,000 that
he haggles out of Marvin for signing over custody rights.
There is one condition to their agreement: Charlie must look after
Max for the summer while Debra and Marvin on are their honeymoon, to which
he begrudgingly agrees. He
does not, however, want to have anything to do with the kid and vice
As father and son try to not
verbally rip each other apart, Charlie has the dubious task of trying to
find another bot for him to buy, clean up, and get back into the ring,
seeing as he is indebted to several people.
One fateful night at a junkyard - while Charlie and Max rummage
through spare parts - they accidentally come across an old, buried
sparring robot affectionately named Atom (it’s written on its body).
Max wants to turn Atom into a contender, but the pragmatist in
Charlie says that the idea is doomed to failure.
His on-again, off-again girlfriend and robot grease monkey, Bailey
(the limitlessly photogenic Evangeline Lily) does help Max get the rusted
hunk of gears and circuits back together.
Eventually, Atom gets into fighting shape and Max convinces Charlie
to enter him in for some fights, and astoundingly the underdog Atom wins
his first bout…then another…and then another…until he becomes a
contender for robot supremacy against the champion, a monstrous Japanese
creation called Zeus, that is undefeated.
There is not one story thread
or plot development in REAL STEEL that will come as any surprise to any
viewer with a modest brain. Gee,
I wonder if father and son will bond on their journey to get Atom into the
ring? Hmmm, I wonder if
Charlie will use his boxing skills to help train the programming of the
bot? Hey, I wonder if Atom
will be severely tested in the ring versus Zeus and, at the last minute,
pull together all of its intestinal – albeit mechanical – fortitude to
pull off the mother of all upsets?
By the time REAL STEEL thunderously rolls by to its unavoidably
predicable climax, I did more watch checking and head shaking than I
perhaps should have.
The film also left me asking a
lot of questions that better films would have made me forget to ask.
Like, for example, how on earth could robots this size and this
powerful not reduce each other to crunched up, oil covered piles of debris
after just a few lethal blows? How
can a ‘bot like Atom be successfully revived after spending what looks
like years under a tomb of rock, mud, and other unimaginable crap? The robots themselves are controlled by humans, but are they
self-aware? Do they think? Have
feelings? Do they hate their
opponents? Do they like being
slaves to the greedy motives of their human captors that are essentially
using them for profit? The
film seems petrified of even dealing with the notion of A.I. and what it
means to its universe.
The robots at least are
stunningly envisioned with a combination of CGI visual effects and state
of the art animatronics and they do move and behave like human boxers
(Sugar Ray Leonard served as a consultant for the film).
It’s to the film’s discredit, though, that the machines have
more range of emotion and are more relatable than the one note human
characters that populate the story. REAL
STEEL’s personas are not so much flesh and blood people as they are
easily definable types: Charlie is the cocky and arrogant SOB that cares
about money first and family second, but then learns to respect the latter as
the film progresses; Max is the prototypical tech/computer smart kid with
a wiseass mouth that shuns authority; Bailey is the girlfriend on
autopilot that has to convince her stubborn man how to forget the past and
learn to love in the present; and then there are Zeus’ handlers: an icy
cold Russian babe with a eye for power and the filthy rich, unemotional,
and engineering/business savvy Japanese creator that would rather commit a kamikaze act than see
his creation lose.
If I were, say, 9 or
10-years-old than I would most likely hail REAL STEAL as a masterpiece.
Alas, I am an adult critic with ample life and movie experience, so
I can say that the film only succeeds, I guess, as a mass marketed and
envisioned product. Its
director, Shaun Levy (who previously made the abortive PINK
PANTHER remake and CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN, and not inspiring much
confidence) knows how create an easily sellable film commodity that can
engage young viewers in mindless and colorful spectacle.
REAL STEEL is not
as offensively awful as, say, any of the TRANSFORMERS pictures, but it
shares the same level of loud, crude, bombastic, and soullessly numbing
action as those Michael Bay efforts.
In the end, REAL STEEL is just a dutifully mechanical concoction
that superficially wows us with its spectacle, but bores us with its dull
and conventional character relationships.
That, and the film just lacks a tangible heart.
Mr. Balboa, a more satisfyingly flesh and blood film creation,
could teach the makers here a thing or two here.