Real Steel (2011)

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 

       

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand, Hope Davis, James Rebhorn, Marco Ruggeri, Karl Yune, Olga Fonda, John Gatins, David Alan Basche, Phil LaMarr.
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Director: Shawn Levy
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 126 Minutes

Release Date: October 7, 2011
Home Video Release Date: TBD
Box Office: $TBD
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Touchstone Pictures, DreamWorks SKG, 21 Laps Entertainment, Angry Films, ImageMovers, Reliance Entertainment, and Walt Disney Pictures.

Written by: John Gatins; Story by Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven.

 

“This ain’t a video game…this is real life!” – Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman).

“Real Steel” is a mess.  I have no idea if this film wants to be a science-fiction film with cutting edge special effects, dazzling the eyes of viewers young and old.  I have no idea if the film is attempting to tap into the heartstrings of a father/son bonding story where a grizzled dad regains the love of a son he doesn’t even know.  I am not even sure if this is supposed to emulate Executive Producer Steven Spielberg’s penchant for having young boys bond with robotic creations.  Elements of the film play like a robotic version of “Rocky” and the film even tries to position itself as a love story between an old and washed up boxer and the woman he shares a lengthy history with.

No…I frankly have no earthly idea as to what “Real Steel” wants to be, but it does succeed at being a jumbled mixtape of ideas that never materialize into anything rational or sane.

Hugh Jackman is that former boxer, Charlie Kenton, and in a not-so-distant future, “Real Steel” presents a world where boxing has essentially lost its appeal, professional wrestling and Mixed Martial Arts are apparently now nonexistent, and the World Robot Boxing League (the “WRB”) has become the combat sport of choice around the world.  These fighting robots, who walk, move, and react very similarly to the humans who determine their actions through remote control or computer programs, battle for massive fame and prize money.  Looking to move into that spotlight and break away from the underground fight clubs that piecemeal his existence, Charlie returns home, where he rents space from Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), the daughter of Charlie’s old boxing trainer, who assists him in his rebuilding projects, even if and when he is delinquent on his rent.

Unbeknownst to Charlie, the mother of his son has passed away and under Texas law, Charlie’s son, Max (Dakota Goyo), must go live with his other biological parent, if alive and traceable.  Max’s aunt and uncle, Debra and Marvin (Hope Davis and James Rebhorn), are willing, both emotionally and financially, to take in and raise Max, but Charlie must first sign over his parental rights to them.  Arriving in court, Charlie has every intention of signing the documents, but is then faced with a problem.  Debra and Marvin have a planned summer-long trip they insist on taking (wait…what?) and Charlie seizes the opportunity to have Marvin secretly pay him to take care of his own son while they are away.  The price tag is steep, Marvin is willing to pay, and naturally, Charlie, takes the money and reinvests it in another fighting robot.  Apparently, there is no price that can ever be placed on the psychological damage that Max will someday face knowing all of this, but I digress…

Max is 11-years old, brash, talks like a sailor, and stands up tough and tall against Charlie.  He also has a love of fighting robots and forms an initial kinship with Charlie over this mutual love.  Charlie has an old fighting bot delivered to Bailey’s shop and Max recognizes him as Noisy Boy, a successful fighter from years past in the WRB.  Exuberant, Charlie takes Noisy Boy to an underground fight, scores a spot in the main event based on Noisy Boy’s legacy, and well…let’s just say that the film continues from this point forward.

On and on we go.  A trip to the junkyard in a mud-soaked rainstorm brings peril, father/son unity, and the recovery of a dirty and dilapidated sparring bot, used for testing out harder, better, faster, stronger fighter bots.  Dad and son bond over their reclamation project as they create a new bot from the remnants of other broken down fighter bots, and even Bailey begins to open up to Max, sharing with him stories of Charlie’s boxing days.  The discovery of the “Shadow” function within the new robot enables Max and Charlie to find innovative new ways to prepare their bot, named Atom due to a nameplate found on the robot’s front casing.  Whether it be fighting the bot or dancing with it to a hip-hop track in the park (just don’t even ask…), Max forges a connection he feels is as real as any relationship he has ever had.  And then they proceed to enter Atom into brutal fighting competitions all around the country.

“Real Steel” is a rambling wreck of a production.  Everything is awkwardly handled and nothing ever cohesively comes together.  Ultimately, you get the sense that director Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum” films) felt that his visual effects – a combination of CGI and impressive animatronic robot effects – were so awesome that people would ignore the mawkishness which punctuates everything else occurring on screen. The screenplay by John Gatins is unfocused, cringeworthy, and hard to embrace.

Truth is…Max is an unwanted and orphaned child who gets sold for money.  Truth is…Charlie is one of the more selfish and unlikable Dad’s I have encountered on screen in quite some time.  Truth is…Bailey is aggravatingly loyal, gloaming onto Charlie after all these years of broken promises, and Charlie’s affinity for shirking responsibilities and obligations.  “Real Steel” is devoid of likable characters to rally and/or get behind, because we are frequently reminded time and time again that if this were real life, and those cameras shut off and life were to resume for these folks, Charlie is still going to be untrustworthy, Bailey will continue to enable him and Max needs therapy.  The boy just lost his loving mother and was sold for money.  Anyone else troubled by this?!?!

And despite running One-Hundred-And-Twenty-Six-Minutes and being as contrived as a film can be, there are still some positives if you really dig deep for them.  The visual effects and sound work is fantastic and the film audibly is every bit as impressive as the filmmakers and DreamWorks and Disney think it is.  Hugh Jackman is enthusiastic enough to almost sell this thing as plausible, but his performance ultimately comes off as hollow as the con man he plays on screen.  Child actor Dakota Goyo is a pendulum of good and bad, often within the same scene, although he does hold his own with Jackman’s frenetic performance.  Honestly, as dysfunctional as “Real Steel” turns out to be, younger kids are probably going to be swept up within the universe of this film.

This movie is far from the worst of the year, but it is nonetheless a vexing and frustrating one.  And I imagine it will make a lot of money at the box office.  But I do not want to watch it again.  I really do not want to recommend this to Dads looking to bond with their sons over a harmlessly violent action movie.

Because when those kids want to take their robots and bash them together in a ring and exhibit violent tendencies, they will likely also want to dance with their robot, and curse at it, and frankly – I don’t want all that imitative behavior to be my fault or the fault of any other reviewer who gives this a pass.  Judge it for yourself, but be prepared to de-program in the hours and days which follow, after the rousing conclusion and feel good sugar-high wears off from this terribly misguided film.

Should I See It?

YES

For those who like films that combine father/son bonding, robots, child-like dreams of having a super cool friend, and a rousing sports film that tries to get you to leap out of your seat, then this is the film for you!

Fans of films like “Transformers” and other older kid-friendly science-fiction cinema will have another film they will see play on constant repeat when it reaches home video. The movie looks fantastic, with regard to the seamless robot visuals and loud soundtrack.

It aims for the heartstrings and will certainly win a lot of people over with its Rocky-esque bid for acceptance and desire to please.

NO

The film has no clue what it wants to say, do, or be.  For some this won’t matter, but the silly and unrestrained script will make a lot people sigh, exhale loudly, and wonder how much longer there is to go in the film.

For a film that markets itself as a family action/sci-fi film, there is a great deal of potential with imitative behavior that kids will pick up on and perhaps emulate at home.

If people were to stop and think about this for a minute, the film is illogical and shameless in foregoing rational thought for disingenuous sentimentality.  Then again, it is a big budget popcorn movie, so nevermind…