Oct 12, 2011|
(USA) Directed by Shawn Levy. Starring Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Hope Davis. Category IIA.
An underdog story threaded by father-son drama and set in the robot-boxing near-future—no, you’ve never seen “Real Steel” before, though I understand why you’d feel like you have. “Rocky” meets “Transformers” meets “The Champ” sums up about the first 30 minutes of the film, and then it keeps repeating itself.
That said, director Shawn Levy’s latest feature is not an awful live-action take on the Rock’em Sock’em board game like its trailer made me believe. It’s actually more of an okay-if-bland loose adaption of the 1956 short story “Steel” by Richard Matheson, which was later adapted into an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” With good performances and top-class visual spectacles making up for the movie’s corny plotline and bald-faced exploitation of genre elements, “Real Steel” is a big, loud sci-fi-action-family mash-up that will probably be loved by adolescent boys and dads ready to embrace their inner child.
The story takes place in 2020, when people have apparently become bored of human boxing because it’s just not violent enough for the bloodthirsty crowds. Replacing the carnal in the ring are nine-foot-tall robots that can, and will, fight till they “die” and “bleed” hydro fluid all over the floor. They are fully made, controlled and managed by humans, and Charlie (Hugh Jackman), a washed-up ex-boxer, is now a manager/promoter in this popular sport. But judging from the number of people he owes money to, he’s not very good at it.
Also not his forte is parenting. His ex-girlfriend’s recent death reunites him with Max (Dakota Goyo, a star is born), the 11-year-old son he’s practically forgotten and has no intention of fathering now. After briskly giving custody to Max’s aunt (Hope Davis) and her well-off husband, Charlie reluctantly agrees to take care of the boy for the summer first, until the couple comes back from their European vacation. It happens that the videogame-obsessed Max digs robots very, very much, which gives him a reason to stay with his remote, selfish old man. One day, Max rescues and revives a discarded early-generation robot named Atom from a landfill and asks Charlie to take it into the underground pugilism circuit. Made as a sparring bot, Atom is smaller and weaker than most fighting bots, but can take a beating like no other and has a “shadow” function that allows it to mimic its trainer’s every move. And you know how it goes from here—Charlie finds his redemption in Max, and an unlikely championship contender is born.
Charmingly played by newcomer Goyo, Max is a feisty little chap who also knows how to stare at you with those dewy eyes until he gets what he wants. He’s got some Bieber-ish dance moves, too, which Atom can mimic in sync, making for some cheesy but effective duo dance numbers. Levy certainly knows how to use his assets, capturing all Goyo’s haha-so-cheeky and aww-so-adorable moments in close-ups—IMAX close-ups. The boy finds his cutie-pie match in Atom. Though without a face, except the big neon-blue eyes behind what looks like a fencing mask, the robot somehow seems to have more life and soul than its fancy-looking high-tech opponents. (Maybe it’s a cousin of Wall-E.)
Still keeping that Wolverine edge, Jackman makes a convincing jerk. Sugar Ray Leonard’s involvement in the film as a consultant gives the fighting sequences a realistic touch, which is further enhanced by the seamless visual effects. All the CGI-ed robots look as real as they get, either when they’re standing next to humans or pounding the living hell out of each other. At one point, Atom goes against ruthless boxer Zeus, an undefeatable world champion who’s got the size of Ivan Drago and the technique of Wilfred Benítez.
As the story unfolds, its uber-heart-warming tone and family-friendly formula gradually gets brazen and annoying. Even the connection between Max and Atom reminds you of “E.T.,” but that’s just producer Steven Spielberg ticking another checkbox. “Real Steel” isn’t a bad cinematic experience, but after all this summer’s less-than-impressive sci-fi adventures—rounded up by “Super 8,” “Cowboys & Aliens” and “Transformers 3”—I’m kind of done with the whole robot/alien business. Hope you are too, Steven.