Saturday, October 8, 2011

Real Steel Review

Producer Steven Spielberg must be looking for his inner child. I mean look at the recent projects he's been involved with. Super 8 (2011) Kids making movies. Falling Skies and Terra Nova. Teenagers play big roles. The Transformers films. Movies about the robot toy. Where's the guy that made Schindler's List? (1993) Are adults dead in Hollywood? Or is it about studios always going for a younger demographic. Well, now Spielberg has produced the film Real Steel, a movie based on the short story, "Steel" by Richard Matheson. It's sort of a cross between the toy "Rock 'em Sock 'em" robots and Rocky.

The "Sweet Science" fiction.

Reel Steel takes place in the near future. The sport of boxing no longer uses human combatants. Because of their entertainment value, large robots have taken their place. These boxing robots are driven by human controllers. At the top of the robot boxing world is Zeus owned by Farra Lemkova, played by Olga Fonda, who frankly speaks with a bizarre eastern European accent. At the bottom of the robot boxing world is Charlie Kenton, (Hugh Jackman) a down and out former boxer, who now goes from town to town eking out a living by fighting his robot, Ambush at fairs. After getting his robot destroyed in a match with a robotic bull, Charlie is subpoenaed to a custody hearing for his estranged son, Max. (Dakota Goyo) You see Max's mother has just died and his aunt Debra (Hope Davis) wants custody. Seeing that Debra and her new husband Marvin, (James Rebhorn) are very rich, Charlie proposes to sign over custody. He makes this offer to Marvin for $100, 000.00. Marvin agrees but wants Charlie to babysit Max for four months until he and Debra come back from vacation.

Charlie uses the money to buy Noisy Boy, a legendary boxing robot. The robot is shipped to Charlie's old gym, now being run by his ex-girlfriend, Bailey Tallet. (Evangeline Lilly) Since there is no longer any boxing for humans, she's become a robot mechanic. Max tells Charlie, he's big fan of robotic boxing and forces Charlie to take him to Noisy Boy's first fight.

After Noisy Boy is destroyed during the fight, Charlie and Max scavenge the local scrap yard looking for robot parts to build a new robot. It's there that Max literally falls on Atom, a sparring robot. The bring him back to the gym and discover that he also has a "shadow mode" control which enables the robot to emulate the movements of its human controller. After repairs, Charlie and Max then take the robot out to fight.

A boy and his robot.

Like a bad boxer, screenplay writers John Gatins, Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven telegraph every fictional punch. There's cliches. Yeah, there's the old father and son estrangement. How about Bailey's speech about how good a boxer Charlie was and his famous fight. Heard that one before. And get this, it's delivered by Evangeline Lilly who's too beautiful to be believed. A woman that beautiful is now a robot mechanic? I concede she did do a good job but the casting doesn't work that well. Then there's the contrived action. Charlie refuses to help Max get Atom out of the scrapyard. So how does the kid wheel a one ton robot down the road? Then there a silly scene where Charlie refuses to teach Atom his moves. Why? Just to add drama.

Another problem is Shawn Levy's (Night at the Museum) direction. He makes the bad guys literally snarl. Much of the movie feels like a cartoon. And while Danny Elfman's score will often soar, his rock and roll tendencies such as writing melodies that are mere fragments and use of heavy metal music obscures his better work in the movie.

So with these flaws, I was waiting for Reel Steel to have a major malfunction. But a movie can be like a football game. For example, at last week's Cincinnati Bengals-Buffalo Bills game, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton played like feces in the first half. Then in the second half, he played like Joe Montana. Dalton led the Bengals to victory.

Real Steel is the same as that Andy Dalton performance. It overcame a weak start. But where did this happen in the film? I look to the scene where Max takes Atom out for a walk. The robot in shadow mode comes alive as a character. By imitating Max, it shows empathy. That empathy made the robot a friend to a lonely boy. There is now hope. Hope for happiness. Hope and glory. Add to this moment of movie magic, it must be noted that Reel Steel was filmed in depressed Michigan. Maybe this cinematic mash-up is a metaphor for our recession era times.

And all this hope comes to fruition in Atom's first fight. Max bets everything that Atom can withstand one round with hulking robot called Metro. Now you know that Atom can't lose because the movie is over within thirty minutes. Yet, even while knowing the results, I found myself rooting for Atom. A lot of this is the performance of Dakota Goyo. He displays bravado, confidence and optimism as Max. And take nothing away from Hugh Jackman as Charlie, who's likable and whose athletic punches are a thing of grace. I'll admit I was applauding for Atom in each fight.

Real Steel has real heart. You will root for this little robot that could. It's rousing entertainment and heartily recommended. The grade is A.

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