Saturday, October 15, 2011
Movie Review: Real Steel
A common fable is that in the early days of motion pictures, the audience ran screaming from a theater when the film they were watching showed a train coming into a station. The story, which is most likely false, is fun to think about in the same way old-timers like to reminisce about what used to cost a nickel way back when.
We go to the movies for a number of reasons: escapism, relaxation, to make out on the back row, and of course, to sit in wonder and think "how did they do that?" In the years since the technological dawn of computer generated images we, as a people, have begun to grow a healthy skepticism towards all-out CG shlok fests. We've been burned too many times by lazy filmakers who trade depth for dazzle and as a result, a dichotomy has grown to the point that every film is categorized as either good or effect-driven.
It didn't use to be mutually exclusive. Lord of the Rings blew our minds and made us care at the same time. Gladiator, with it's epic battles and larger than life sets, gave us a chilling history lesson bathed in blood. It's easy to lay the blame on the filmmakers (George Lucas, Michael Bay, etc.) but we, the audience are slightly to blame as well. We've lost the ability to be dazzled.
So arrives Real Steel, a movie about a father and son reconciling with the backdrop of Robot Boxing. When the ads first came out, many of us shared a collective groan, "Robot Boxing? Seriously" But why not? Who says a movie about pugilistic androids can't be good? Is it really any different than Rocky, or Remember the Titans?
Turns out it's not. Real Steal packs an emotional punch along with it's mechanical bouts of strength and it does so with one of the most conventional tools in the game: a kid. We meet 11-year-old Max early in act I, the abandoned child of protagonist Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) who, after the passing of his mother, needs a legal guardian. Kenton is a down-on-his-luck former boxer trying to find his place in a world where the game has changed.
Kenton is down a robot (2, actually) and up to his neck in illegitimate debts. He and Jr. go scavenging through a junkyard and happen upon an older-model robot, built to take a beating and not much else, and after tenacious insisting by Jr., they lug the old bot to the shop and hope to fight another day.
Turns out, Atom's (the robot) unique shadow-boxing design makes him easier for Kenton (a former pro) to control and so the terrible trio of Father, Son and Robot begin climing the ladder toward the appropriately named world champion: Zeus.
The structure is a textbook underdog sports story. There's no shocking reveals or twists and turns. Where it not for the spectacular effects (frankly, I'm inclined to say it's the best I've ever seen) Real Steel would be the most traditional movie of the year. Even weirder, it's squeaky clean. You could watch this movie with your mother, shucks, you could watch it with your grandmother.
It's a no-frills, feel good, family flick that just happens to feature boxing robots. In a way it's the least-flashy flashy film you've ever seen, and shares more in common with films from a simpler time than it's shiny contemporaries. It may not quite have the heart of Rocky, but by the final fight as the seconds count down to the end of the 5th round you'll be cheering for Atom as much as you would any human character.