FILM REVIEW: Real Steel
Okay. Look at that title. You know why you’re here, I know why I’m here. This movie’s been getting a gigantic media push over the last three months, trying to make it seem like a big, blockbuster movie on par with your Transformers or your new Marvel cinematic continuity. And now, for some unfathomable reason, you’ve come to me asking if it’s any good. Well, I’ve got good news and bad news. The movie is as ludicrous as its premise suggests. Robots box. Hugh Jackman is an out-of-luck ex-boxer from the early 2010’s who trains robots to punch each other in the face. The robots have faces and human bodies because Battlebots: The Movie likely wouldn’t have sold as well. Lord knows why, circular sawblade arms are awesome.
So Charlie Kenton (Jackman) is kind of a douchebag. He’s living with his landlady, Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly) who’s around his age and has known him since her father trained Kenton as a boxer. Charlie’s a deadbeat dad who ran out on his son shortly after he was born, he’s told that he’s now got custody of the boy because his mother died. The boy’s name is Max (Dakota Goyo) and he’s eleven years old, though Charlie swears he’s nine. Max is a mouthy little brat, but not in the obnoxious, fake, Hollywood-kid way. Somehow, the casting director for this movie managed to find a kid that looks like a kid on camera–annoying but in a real way.
In any case, Max and Charlie go to the scrapyard after getting their brand new bot Noisy Boy destroyed in a fight to look for spare parts to build a new bot. While there, Charlie incidentally delivers the entire history of robot boxing in five to seven lines. Around three to five years from now, some guy finally improved upon Honda’s walking robot designs and made ones that could punch. Initially, they fought under all rules of human combat, but within a short span of time, it was realized that with non-human combatants, you could do pretty much anything. Including decapitation, which is what had happened to Noisy Boy earlier that evening. At which point, through fate or through plot, Max finds an old (Gen 2) sparring bot named Atom in the silt at the bottom of the scrapheap, discarded by everyone. And as Max is the one to winch it up the hill and cart it back to the truck, Max is the one who owns it.
If you’ve seen Rocky, you know where the plot goes from here: a nobody fighter from nowhere gets a number of underground fights that don’t pay for scrap and eventually starts winning some and making some money. However, because Max’s dad has been a bit of a douchebag for a long time to a lot of people whom he owes money to, they can only get the worst of all possible fights. Which Atom wins due to his extraordinary ability to take a punch. Max sees the potential in Atom immediately, Bailey sees that the kid and his father are actually getting along, Hugh Jackman manages to make being a jerk into something charming and lovable. A la Wolverine, now that I think about it.
An unexpected part of this movie is the “boy and his dog” subplot between Max and Atom. If the movie weren’t so tightly shot and edited, keeping a light, breezy pace throughout, it’d seem extraneous. But it sort of builds a character behind the mask of the machine, making you wonder if there are really souls in the things we love and talk to, or if it’s just a wiring fault making us think it’s a real sentient being. Then again, that entire paragraph before this sentence makes it sound like a Rise of the Planet of the Apes style morality-fest. Don’t be alarmed. It’s a movie about robots punching each other, and the robots punch indeed.
The real surprise in this movie was how tightly constructed it was. I sort of have a thing for movies that are entirely self aware that they’re popcorn fluff but do it with flair and style, and in that measure, Real Steel is a great movie. It’s not one of the best movies of all time, or anything–it got pushed out of the summer season, being released in October, for crap’s sake. Nobody has had any faith in this movie to do anything but put some butts in some seats before Oscar-bait season starts. Which makes it sort of like Atom itself. An underdog nobody thinks is going to perform that ends up getting a shot at the title out of sheer balls.
I can’t find a grand, overarching fault with this movie. I’ve tried and tried, but I feel like I’ve spent another evening seeing Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, only this time, I expected it to be good. I didn’t expect it to be as real as it is and feels. The future is the most realistically implemented setting I’ve seen since Children of Men, ironically enough. It’s a casual, used, worn and torn future where things look the same but slightly shinier with a little more grit on them. Just like the soundtrack/cinematography/direction/anything of this movie. Good and competent without reaching past its ability but without settling for mediocrity.
You know, I don’t exactly expect to be vindicated by history on Real Steel. It could’ve been one of the worst movies to be released this year, its premise earning it no favours from the public. And maybe I’ll be recorded as the minority voice in saying it’s actually kinda damn good. But I took a chance on Real Steel. I didn’t expect it to fight so hard and I didn’t expect it to win. Whether or not it did in the end isn’t really up to me. That’s up to box office numbers and butts in seats. But for my money’s worth and for my entertainment’s worth, Real Steel is the real de–no, no, not using that line.
It’s pretty damn good, is what it is.