Friday, October 14, 2011

Metal Movie Mayhem

So there's this movie in which the history-rich sport of boxing, once ruled by superhuman personalities like Muhammad Ali, Joe Lewis and Mike Tyson, has evolved into a video game. Remote-controlled robots taking the place and punishment of those men who would enter the rings in the sport's heyday. And yet this isn't called Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots: The Movie, but the far more nonsensical Real Steel, starring Hugh Jackman and based on a short story by Richard Matheson. What's that, you say? Robotic boxing sounds like one of the stupidest ideas you've ever heard of as a plot device for a movie? How about a basic father/son reuniting storyline or every boxing cliche under the sun, brought to you by Disney? Still stupid, you say? Yup, I thought so too. Turns out though that more than million people thought this was worth seeing on opening weekend, proving that when it comes to cinematic entertainment, there really is no accounting for taste. It didn't hurt that Real Steel was all but unopposed this past weekend, with only the George Clooney political thriller The Ides of March approaching anything like a concentrated audience. Of course Ides is no family film, so while Real Steel prances about like a heavyweight fighter, it has only proven itself a bully in a middleweight contest for now. When I attended it earlier this week, it was only because the film was the best available I'd yet to see (sorry, Dream House) and to be honest, I really felt like I NEEDED to see a stupid movie after having my emotional core besieged by the wonderful 50/50. If Real Steel could provide cheap fun for the night, isn't that all it really promises?

We see a lot of this
Charlie Kenton (Jackman) is a former boxer who had to give up his honored past-time when the sport changed. More extreme fans and offshoots like UFC eventually forced boxing to adapt to the more ruthless, no-holds-barred entertainment that the people were clamoring for. Since the human body can only handle so much, robots eventually replaced the boxers of the world, and that forced guys like Charlie to make a change. Now the down-on-his luck performer is deep in debt to rough honchos, and has irreparably lost two robots to battle damage in two subsequent losses. Charlie's luck begins to change however, when into his custody comes his preteen son Max (Dakota Goyo), whose mother has recently passed away. While Charlie wants nothing to do with the kid and eagerly signs over custody of Max to the deceased's sister, he still has to care for Max while she is away in Europe. This leads to the boy discovering an old sparring bot while helping Charlie dive for spare parts at a junkyard, and soon the father and son team are touring the country with a bot named Atom that can take a huge amount of punishment while Charlie trains it to become a winner in the ring, Meanwhile, Max teaches Charlie to be a better man than he was.

It's the devastating "Whatsis Neme"!
So. Obviously there's got to be SOMETHING wrong with this film, outside of it's nonsensical existence. You're waiting for me to point out what that is, aren't you? Well, let's go down the list. The special effects aren't an issue. Perhaps I was blinded by the immense size of the IMAX screen on which I watched this, but Real Steel sports some of the best special effects this side of a Michael Bay blockbuster, with special care taken in the design and implementation of the robotic athletes. Unlike many films, actual robots were built for the story-focused scenes, and CGI used only in actually making them duke it out. A great attention to detail and excellent effort made to animate these beasts is the film's greatest accomplishment, a far greater feat than many a Summer thrill-ride was able to achieve in 2011. The world presented is also deep, with vast cornfields, wide open areas and very little urban sprawl used to hearken back to a less populated America, in a nostalgic effort to let us know that as much as the sport of boxing has changed, the world in which it had it's greatest moments remains the same or at least similar. Add atop this an excellent soundtrack by Danny Elfman (of Oingo Boingo and The Simpsons fame), and there is not an element visually or aurally that is out of place.

Previously on Lost
So the problem isn't in the special effects; those are up to snuff. Hmmm. Maybe it's the acting that is Real Steel's fatal flaw? Nope, sorry. While the cast could never in a million years be referred to as "perfect", there are also no obvious weak links to drag the whole ensemble apart. Hugh Jackman is his usual boisterous and charming self, and as the manliest man to ever sing "Oklahoma", it's too bad that he never seems to pick great movies in which to be the star. With the exception of his turn as Wolverine in the X-Men series of films, the vast majority of his career has been either poorly-criticized or poorly-attended. It's a shame, as he's obviously talented enough to be more than a mere action star, but too large physically to fully break away from that mold. At least he looks like he's having a good time making this film, which is a lot better than John Travolta has looked in the last half-dozen years. Most of the other actors come nowhere close, but are able at least to do a passable job for the genre. Some of the better actors, Anthony Mackie and Kevin Durand in particular, aren't given a lot to do beside being strong personalities. Seeing Evangeline Lilly in something not created by J.J. Abrams was intriguing enough, but she's not quite able explain why she thinks she wants to do this as a career. Sure she's spunky, but there's nothing new to see with her. Dakota Goyo has probably the closest thing the film has to a "why is he here" role, as his stubborn child character is hardly top shelf, even if it had been remotely unique. Still, these actors show up and are enthusiastic to be on the set, so it's nearly impossible to fully discredit their work.

Two men enter, one man leaves! Two men ent... oh... wait...
Hmm, that's two down. Really, do we need anything else to be wrong with Real Steel? The ridiculousness of the entire presented universe is far from intelligent, to start. Sure, there's the fact that a human body can do so much, but that isn't nearly enough to explain why boxing with robots would become so popular. Just ask any fan of fighting as sport: there's something exciting about seeing two humans beating the ever living crap out of one another. The same can't be said for two robots, especially when the concept of a "more extreme" form of the art is nullified by keeping many of Boxing's original rules. Even if robots aren't indestructible, why do they need breaks between rounds? Why ARE there rounds? Why not keep them fighting constantly? There are obviously a lot of questions that could be asked in that vein. So why does robot combat become so exciting? Who knows? Certainly the filmmakers never paused to consider that particular question, the way we're expected to just accept that crowds would go gaga for an "unbeatable" bot from Russia (at least, its owner is Russian) whose fights in person must be boring and predictable. But even this isn't a deal-changer, as escapism goes a long way to make your forget the inanity of the entire situation, and Jackman does his best to cover the rest.

Jackman talking to his agent about the announced Real Steel sequel
Okay, there really is a big problem with Real Steel that might be an issue for you as a viewer. Ever seen a boxing movie? Rocky? Raging Bull? Cinderella Man? Well, these filmmakers have seen all those movies as well, and more. With the exception of the fact that the robots are the big, bad fighters, there is not one unique story element to be found anywhere in this film. Walkout dad and stubborn son finding they have more in common than they thought? Complete with redemption angle? The aforementioned "unstoppable" champion bot? Charlie's unrealized fighting potential? Even the entirety of the cliched "championship match" at the whole thing's end? You'll find it all elsewhere. It would have been great for Real Steel to get a real story to match its random title, but unfortunately that wasn't given much consideration by director Shawn Levy. That's unfortunate since Levy's last film, the very funny Date Night, was more than a few steps above his previous efforts. That this film has been a success while the under-appreciated Warrior rots in empty theaters is disconcerting to say the least. Still, Real Steel for the most part holds it's own as even with a completely unoriginal story it manages to hang with the median of 2011 action movies, faring better than Cowboys & Aliens and Captain America and perhaps on par with Fast Five. Spend as much on a ticket as you think it's worth, and this sci-fi tale might sneak up on you. Just don't expect to be blown away by anything other than the visuals.

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