Real Steel (2011)
In the future world of Real Steel, set in 2020, robot boxing has become a huge sensation. It seems that audience bloodlust was not being satisfied with flesh and blood hitting the canvas, so robot brutality will do. Whatever happened to mixed martial arts, a sport arguably more popular than boxing in this day and age, popular enough it even got its own uplifting sports drama earlier this year (the overlooked Warrior). I strongly doubt that in only nine years we’d have giant fighting robots and that this “sport” would be nationally recognized. Did anyone see Comedy Central’s mechanical Coliseum showdown, Battlebots? There’s your answer, America.
In this future world where trucks have glass panels to show the world your feet (why? Because it’s “futuristic” you fool), Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a has been. He enjoyed a fleeting career as a professional boxer before the mechanical men came into popularity. Now he goes from town to town trying to scrounge up some petty money with small-market robot boxing rings. His only pal is Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), his former flame and the owner of the boxing ring/chop shop that Charlie calls home. Charlie owes plenty of money to plenty of not nice people. His solution arrives in the form of his 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo). Charlie ran out on Max and his mother when Max was a baby, but now mom’s dead and custody is being discussed. Mom’s aunt (Hope Davis) and her rich hubby want Charlie to sign away his parental rights, which he agrees to do for the right price. Max spends one last/first summer with his estranged father before going off to live with his auntie. The two bond when Max discovers a beat-up old sparring robot when father and son are skimming parts illegally at a junkyard. The old bot, which Max names Atom, becomes a champion fighter. Father and son ride the success all the way to a championship bout with Zeus, a legendary robot that destroys all challengers. Can they stun the world? Can father and son bury the hatchet? If these answers are in doubt, I advise you to see any sports movie ever released.
Just in case you stood clueless and slack jawed at the film’s storytelling prowess, you’re in luck because every character will take great pains to explain the significance of plot points, key metaphors and symbols, and personal motivations. Usually this stuff is tucked away as subtext, but Reel Steal decided that it would rather rub the audience’s nose in the architecture of its screenplay. Characters will just go around speaking blurting out their feelings in the most transparent way possible: “I can’t be with you again, I’m afraid of being hurt again, and seeing you in that ring is like seeing my father again in that ring, and fighting this fight is your attempt to regain redemption and prove yourself wrong, and the robot is old and busted but still has some fight in it left, just like you Charlie…” It gets tiresome. Max squeals, “All I’ve ever wanted was for you to fight for me!” Your dad’s kind of a lout, kid. You’d be better off being adopted by your preposterously rich aunt, which is really the moral we learned from Annie. Who talks like these people? It’s astounding how blatant the film is about explaining its sotry mechanics so that the dumbest common denominator in the audience can walk away feeling like Roger Ebert (“Did you notice how the robot was a metaphor for Charlie? I did.”).
Never in my life would I have anticipated that someone would watch Over the Top and say, “What if we added robots?” This movie essentially is a souped-up version of Sylvester Stallone’s 1987 flick where a dad fights for the custody of his kids through the weirdly court-approved process of the gentleman’s game of arm wrestling. First off, who in their right mind would make a movie about professional arm wrestling? There’s a reason this specific sports genre still stands with one entry. Charlie finds redemption over one summer spent with the kid he abandoned and then sold. The strange thing is that Max knows from the start that he’s more a commodity than a valued son. Yet he still bonds with dear old dad though he’s still going off to live with his rich aunt by the end. The father/son relationship becomes the heart of the movie, but what good can come from two annoying characters learning to get along? They’re still too annoying for me.
Charlie’s fight to become a better father is hampered by the fact that I wanted to strangle his kid. There was rarely a moment that passed where I didn’t want to punt this little brat. From the moment he first steps on screen, Max is surly and aggravating. Given that he’s meeting the father who abandoned him, I’d expect some confrontation but this little twerp cops a bratty attitude throughout. He hops on the boxing ring mic and walks around with a phony swagger and challenges the biggest baddest robot. The kid seems like a chip off the ole block, falling victim to hubris just like dead. When Goyo (Thor) screams it becomes a high-pitched caterwaul that caused me to writhe in physical pain. The subplot of Max teaching the robot how to dance is just embarrassing. You better believe the kid teaches his metal friend how to do the robot. The young actor deserves a fair share of the blame. Goyo flounders, overselling every emotion and hovering at a persistant petulant level of acting. I do not advocate the endangerment of children, obviously but I’d be lying if I failed to admit that I would have slept soundly had Max tumbled to his death in the robot junkyard. Goyo is so powerfully awful that he may well be the tarred as the Jake Lloyd of this decade (Lloyd infamously played the twerpy kiddie Darth Vader in the first of the regrettable Star Wars prequels). It’s hard for me to root for the reunion of father and son when I’d rather see father bury son in the ground.
Real Steel is littered with nonsensical or dropped subplots, the worst offense being Atom’s secret. It’s revealed midway into the film that Atom is not just a sparring robot but a sentient being. It’s faking that it can only shadow human movement. When Charlie “teaches” Atom how to box he really is teaching the robot, though conveniently Atom seems to keep this knowledge to itself. Even when it’s being battered mercilessly, Atom doesn’t employ the skills it’s been taught. Maintaining his cover is more important than self-preservation, so suck on that Asimov. The fact that Atom is sentient is the filmmaker’s desperate attempt to add empathy to the robot. Without sentience, the robot is just a junky avatar that can be scrapped. It’s a piece of equipment but if sentient it becomes a character we can feel for. You don’t share empathy with a coffee maker. I kept waiting for this secret to somehow get out because it’s kind of a monumental deal. But it never does get out. The story never once revisits this gigantically important revelation. What does this mean about other robot boxers? Are they too sentient? What do they think about destroying each other for sport? There are important questions here that are ignored. What’s the point of making Atom sentient if you never do anything with it? It’s only a ploy to drum up empathy, but at no point does Atom feel like a character, only a collection of parts. It’s a coffee maker on steroids.
The movie borrows liberally from other sports movies, taking the emotional beats from Rocky and the family drama from a film like The Champ, though loses the downer ending. Everything is too recognizable, too formulaic, as if it was assembled on a factory floor. The only points of surprise are when Real Steel just carelessly drops plotlines, as mentioned above. What’s the point of introducing a plot point like the robots can malfunction if hit correctly in Act One and not have it resurface in Act Three? Jackman (X-Men) acts with all the power his neck veins can afford. He seems to be constantly growling or on the precipice of said growling. The romantic subplot with Bailey is an undeveloped thread only meant to tie back together into a pretty bow at the plot’s earliest convenience. Lily (TV’s Lost) plays the “girl,” which means all she’s given to do is remind the hero of his potential and be the warm body waiting in bed. But this is a family film, so we stop at late-night cuddling. Then Max ends up being a savant at mechanical engineering and electronics because… he plays video games? Give me a break. And it just so happens that every character we’ve been introduced to will be in attendance for the big fight, even the Texas bookie (the great and underutilized Anthony Mackie). Wouldn’t Detroit bookies take umbrage to this?
Do you like reaction shots? Real Steel is chock full of them: people wincing, people yelling and clapping at TVs, people muttering under their breath the optimistic instructions, “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon.” You accept some reaction shots as part pf the terrain of the sports movie, but when they’re presented in excess then it becomes a crutch, the director reminding the audience what to feel with the subtlety of a sharp stick to the eye. Then again subtlety was never the forte of director Shawn Levy, he of Date Night and Night at the Museum fame. The special effects are strong and the boxing sequences even have some livened suspense to them, though why would anyone build a robot boxer with two heads? What advantage does that offer other than two things to hit? Levy gets lost in the special effects and treats the actors with the same indifferent level of care that the humans show the robots.
Real Steel wants to be a rousing, family-friendly crowd pleaser; it just won’t ever let you forget that this is its primary function. This outlandish sports flick is much like its robotic pugilists: big, dumb, loud, and prone to malfunction. The film has no faith in its audience’s intelligence so every feeling and symbol is plainly explained with unwanted diligence. The characters are unlikable or underwritten, the story is shackled by lockstep devotion to formula, and Goyo’s wretched performance makes it damn near impossible to sympathize with the father/son reunion. Filled with unresolved plot setups and a mystifying similarity to Over the Top, Real Steel is just like every other boxing movie on record except this one has robots. I’m fairly certain the screenwriters were robots too. Why else would they make a robot becoming sentient seem like no big deal? Obviously this is propaganda to lull us into complacency before the impending robot war. Real Steel is a classic example of a movie done by committee; it feels like it was crudely assembled from the spare parts of other, better movies.
Nate’s Grade: C