Real Steel – Review


Proof that Super 8 Wasn’t the Only Amblin-Inspired Release of 2011.

Of all the movies that came out this past summer that had Steven Spielberg’s name emblazoned on screen during the advertisements, the only one that felt Spielbergian (is that the appropriate adjective?) was Super 8 from J.J. Abrams. While others may have been marketed with Spielberg’s name – most notably Cowboys &. Aliens and Transformers: Dark of the Moon – none had that Amblin magic that Spielberg’s company was known for in 1980s. Luckily Reel Steel does, and it fits the mold surprisingly well.

Amblin in its heyday was all about family films built on high concepts. Which is why we had middle schoolers as treasure seekers in The Goonies, a teenager with Family Ties going back in time in Back to the Future, and Bob Hoskins trying to find out Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  Two of those films were from director Robert Zemeckis, while another was from a filmmaker who made us visualize a flying Christopher Reeve. Shawn Levy is just a director-for-hire who’s yet to adapt the iconic Superman comic-book hero or be one of the early adopters of motion-capture technology. What he is, though, is the type of director movie executives love. His films may be painful for some to watch but they make money regardless. And with the successful Night at the Museum films, both big high concept productions, it’s no surprise that Amblin would have him in its crosshairs.

The bigger surprise is how well Shawn Levy’s ‘80s throwback film plays. Real Steel is loosely based on a short story by Richard Matheson (of I Am Legend fame) which was previously adapted as an episode of The Twilight Zone. Now it makes the leap to the big screen. The film is not very original, but there’s little waste in telling the story it wants to tell. It’s highly energetic throughout, and Hugh Jackman and Dakota Goyo have great chemistry together.

Charlie Kenton (Jackman) used to make his living as a boxer. He was good but not a super-elite pugilist. Now he makes his living in robot boxing, which replaces humans with big hulking pieces of metal controlled by humans. The problem with Charlie is his hard-headedness, and his ability to lose money he’s come to possess while looking for a quick score or blow it all trying to build a bigger bankroll. His fortunes begin to change the day he learns of his ex-girlfriend’s passing. They had a little boy together, Max, who he’d rather not father. So he makes a deal with Max’s wealthy uncle (James Rebhorn) to keep Max for the summer for $100,000, until Max’s aunt (Hope Davis) and uncle return from their overseas vacation. It is during those few months together that Charlie and Max find a mutual bond over robot boxing, going as far as to restore an older model sparring robot that can do more than take a beating.

It’s a simple premise that ultimately is an amalgamation of the Rocky series, Over the Top, and Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots; again with the ‘80s comparisons. Transformers may have had tons of flash and special-effects wizardry with a dozen different talking robots, but Real Steel forgoes giving the robots personalities and leaves them as machines. Charlie and Max’s relationship arc anchors the film along with Charlie’s sometimes ladylove-voice of reason-robot repair goddess, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly). The daughter of Charlie’s old trainer, she takes on a role that’s similar to Talia Shire’s Adrian in Rocky. She sees the greatness in Charlie that he can’t see in himself, and while they may have drifted apart romantically, watching Charlie and Max together sees those romantic flames begin to flicker again.

I know what you’re thinking: I thought this was a robot-fighting movie. The robots are there, but the story doesn’t revolve around them. But when they fight you will be entertained. Visual effects supervisor Matthew Gratzner and the rest of the SFX artists deliver with close to a half dozen robot-on-robot fights, while Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Avatar) gives the more intimate moments a visual punch – the scenes at the boxing gym truly standout.

Real Steel was high concept enough to be a summer blockbuster; it’s actually better than some of the heavy-hitters that were released. But it’s less noisy and rambunctious and more at ease. Call it Shawn Levy being mellow in the director’s chair. Now the movie looks to defy the notion that high-concept material only works when kids are out of school. With kids as the target audience Hugh Jackman retracts those Wolverine claws venturing into a genre where both Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel have succeeded previously. Adults should find the material not too terribly taxing and be equally entertained. Real Steel will likely find an audience and a sequel will get made (there’s already rumblings). It won’t become a long-running series like Rocky, which had six films total, but the movie will prove robots are still cool. Granted, these robots may not be more than meets the eye, but at least one has the “eye of the tiger.”

Director: Shawn Levy
Notable Cast: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand, Hope Davis, James Rebhorn
Writer(s): John Gatins, story by Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven

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