Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Real Steel (2011)

Upon viewing the trailer for Real Steel, one may be inclined to shudder, followed by the thought that this is just another robot-action, CGI-laden project trying to cash in on the commercial success of Transformers. I'll admit it, I did. But then you watch the movie, and you realize that Real Steel has something else, something deeper than your typical action flick: heart. And when it comes down to it, it's really a feel-good sports movie, and not much different, then say, Ron Howard's 2005 boxing hit, Cinderella Man. Except with robots.

Shawn Levy's Real Steel takes place in the "near future," where boxing as we know it has become obsolete, and instead of humans as fighters, they've been replaced by giant robots controlled by humans. And savvy-sports followers can think back to the state of boxing thirty or forty years ago, and compare it to the state of boxing now, and acknowledge that this isn't really all that hard to fathom. In fact, reports have surfaced that Floyd Mayweather had recently called out Manny Pacquiao -- the top fighters of our current generation -- via Twitter. Need I say more?

Anyway, let's get back to the film. Real Steal begins with an opening sorrowful tune in the form of Alexi Murdoch's "All of My Days," which instantly gives the viewer the impression that they are supposed to feel something. However, just minutes into the feature, and with a distant shot of a single car driving down a desolate road at dusk, we are not sure exactly what.

Levy is no stranger towards directing big movies with star actors and high expectations, as he is noted for directing both Night at the Museum films. Directing a low-budget indie film is one thing, but directing a "blockbuster" is another, and Levy seems to have honed down whatever it takes to do so, even managing to navigate Real Steel away from typical blockbuster tricks (explosions and fights) and steering it more towards a character drama.

Although, there is no questioning that the film uses conventional clich├ęs to further the plot. The lead character, Charlie Kenton, portrayed by Hugh Jackman, is a rude, selfish, greedy and underachieving middle-aged man, who finds his world changed when news is delivered that his ex-girlfriend suddenly died. Additionally, she left behind a son, which conveniently, is his.

The son, whose name is Max, played by a young man named Dakota Gayo, is astonishingly not at as mad at his father as he should be, considering he abandoned him for 11 years. However, the plot goes on. Charlie, who remember, is selfish and rude, and unequipped to be a father, uses the situation to his benefit. His deceased ex-girlfriend has a sister, Debra (Hope Davis) who is married to a rich man, Marvin (James Rebhorn), who wish to adopt Max. Charlie swindles a deal with Marvin, unbeknownst to Debra, to relinquish custody to them for a large sum of money. Everybody wins! Except Max, of course.

Dakota Gayo and Hugh Jackman bonding.
As his means of living, Charlie, once an acclaimed boxer, maintained the lifestyle and now spends his time designing robots, hoping to create one that could earn him big money, and garner the success that he never experienced as a boxer himself. He works with his friend/girlfriend/hook-up buddy (the history of their relationship is never delved into -- though by the end there leaves no question as to what they are), Bailey, played by Evangeline Lily.

However, the one catch to Charlie and Marvin's deal (conveniently, for plot's sake), is that Charlie must look after Max for two months while he and Debra are vacationing in Italy. Luckily for Charlie, Max shares a fascination with robot fighting, and joins him in his escapades.

And finally, Real Steel takes off. Charlie and Max begin to bond, and eventually, learn from one another. Whereas Charlie wants to assemble an almighty robot that will win him the most amount of money, Max just wants to find a robot that they could call their own.

Atom, the underdog robot in Real Steel
They finally find it when, while searching a junkyard for parts, Max stumbles upon (literally) a discarded robot named Atom. It's an "older model," explains Charlie, and a "model that stands no chance in the ring against real competition." And that's when the underdog story comes into play. In that regard, Real Steal is not unlike such classic underdog tales as the aforementioned Cinderella ManRudy (1993), or Hoosiers (1986). Like those movies, the lesson of Real Steel teaches us that you don't need to the biggest and strongest, or the fastest, but you need to have the most motivation, determination, and the most drive. How can you not take kindly with such a message?

Charlie and Max start out at the bottom with Atom, but after winning a few spars, finally make their way into national attention, working their way into the professional circuit to square off against the big boys, er, I mean robots.

While the robots in the films are not meant to have a personality, Atom does, as he seemingly has some type of kindred connection with Max, allowing the viewer to empathize with the pair even more. Hugh Jackman, meanwhile, does what he does best, portraying the rugged, masculine protagonist who doesn't take crap from anyone. But Jackman's chemistry with young Dakota Gayo, who gives a fairly impressive performance for a child actor, is what makes makes the film work on certain levels. Gayo, whose character clearly inherited an attitude from his father, goes back-and-forth with Jackman with ease throughout the movie.

Though the film takes place in the future, the film doesn't try to overshoot the advancement of technology, aside from the giant fighting robots. Computer screens and phones sure do look a lot more high-tech, but other than that, the film may as well have taken place in 2011.

Like all underdog stories, the film predictably culminates with one big fight, and despite the corny dialogue and conventional plot elements, you won't be able to stop yourself from rooting for Atom -- and Charlie and Max -- with all of your heart.

~ Review by DDubbs

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