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Real Steel: Surprisingly, a Knockout

I’ve been mocking this movie for months before its release. The Rock Em Sock Em Robots concept. The annoying little kid. The trailer with all of its trite corny one-liners. It appeared to be everything that’s wrong with Hollywood. If you were like me, you probably assumed Real Steel, from the director that brought you the Night at the Museum franchise, would be another noisy, brainless, heartless studio effects extravaganza. You, like me, were wrong– Real Steel represents big-budget studio filmmaking done right, full of heart, engaging action, and wonderful earnest performances.

Charlie (Hugh Jackman) is a washed-up boxer trying to survive in his sport as it has evolved. Boxing no longer boasts flesh-on-flesh conflict, but steel-on-steel– humans control robots, so that carnage in the ring can be maximized. Charlie’s robots haven’t done well, as he owes money to people across the nation and doesn’t have a home to his name. To add further stress, his ex-girlfriend dies, leaving their son (Dakota Goyo) in Charlie’s hands– the kids’ aunt and uncle (Hope Davis and James Rebhorn) want custody of the child, which Charlie is happy to give, but they won’t be in the country all summer, so Charlie has two months to take care of his child, find a new robot, mend things with his friend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), and get the debt collectors off his trail.

The world of the film takes place a decade in the future, so outside of advancements in phones, computers, and robots, everything is more or less the same– no flying cars or tinfoil suits. Charlie and his son find an old robot at a dump with a name inscribed on the front: Atom. The son feels an immediate bond with Atom, which has a special shadow function that enables the robot to copy moves it sees and learn from them, and begs his dad to get the robot a fight. Since Charlie has nothing to lose, he reluctantly agrees– to discover that perhaps Atom is worth more in the ring than it appears. He’s the Rocky of robots: not particularly strong or well-equipped, but he can take a lot of punches, wear out an opponent, and exploit his opponent’s weakness. Sure enough, when the son encounters the champion robot, Zeus, his goal becomes clear: Atom vs. Zeus for the robot boxing title.

It all feels familiar, but what isn’t familiar is how engrossing the film is. Normally my cynical critic brain resists when the underdog hero stands up and the music swells, but Real Steel successfully tugged my heart strings. Here’s a movie that doesn’t try to be a comedy or an action movie– it’s first and foremost a drama between a dad and his son, and it spends the majority of its time watching conversations, not robot fights. None of the dialogue is original, none of the characters are brand new, and you know exactly how the film will unfold… yet between the focused direction of Shawn Levy, the gorgeous Mauro Fiore cinematography, and the performances, it feels fresh.

In particular, the performances carry this film, largely on the shoulders of Hugh Jackman and Evangeline Lilly. These are both actors of a particular brand of earnest intensity (or intense earnestness) that is beautifully free of irony, cynicism, or self-awareness. They are both very good-looking, yet they have a vibe that makes you believe they’d go work on cars or go fly fishing on a weekend– they’re the Hollywood-stars-next-door. They each have lines that would have been corny a decade ago (“I got nothin’ left, Charlie!” et al), but this particular brand of actor can sell snow to an Eskimo. Dakota Goyo has a few moments of high energy that borders on precocious– the bit where he threatens to drop the keys in the sewer is like every annoying kid in cinema history wrapped into one– but strangely, perhaps because we see him through Jackman’s eyes, you develop affection for this scrappy youngster. Real Steel is a film about relationships and heart, and I didn’t even touch on the competently shot and edited robot action in the film (the scene in which the robot fights a bull is especially fun). Imagine if the Transformers franchise had a fraction of Real Steel’s competency. I’d be far excited about Real Steel 2 than Trans4mers.

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~ by russellhainline on October 12, 2011.

4 Responses to “Real Steel: Surprisingly, a Knockout”

  1. Geez, I don’t know. I’m reading a lot of good reviews- like yours- but I still have no real desire to see this film. What’s wrong with me?

  2. Trans4mers? Clever! I was mocking Real Steel too, and I still don’t think I’ll see it. Good review.

  3. Sold. My mind is changed.

  4. I thought this movie was going to be a joke when I first saw the trailer. My boyfriend on the other hand seemed to be quite excited so I decided to tag along just for the date. The first 10 minutes of the movie seemed to be a joke and I was clearly thinking “I told you so” but as the movie went on I was completely absorbed in it- seriously. It’s good.

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