Oct 17, 2011

[Movies] Real Steel (2011)

It's funny now movies can still surprise you. Despite how jaded a lot of us get about the remake-centric culture that has swept through Hollywood in recent years and how bad movies seem to have become a matter of habit instead of the rare one-off gimmick, there will still come a movie that appears to be bad but turns out to be rather good. And this is probably part of the reason that I continue to patronize movie theaters in the hopes of catching movie moments precisely like this.

When the buzz around this movie started to go around and the first trailers hit the web, I first thought this was a bad idea gone worse. It seemed like a movie recreation of the old toy Rock'Em Sock' Em Robots (given we do have a movie based on Battleship after all). Thus it felt like a big miss for me that they couldn't get their remake / adaptation right by trying to brand it differently.

But fast forward a few months when the movie finally starts to screen and movie reviews start posting how surprisingly good it was. An that really gave me pause - what had the folks behind this movie done to make even some of the harshest critics give this movie some rather decent reviews?

And so we watched it.


Real Steel is a 2011 is a science fiction themed movie that could be described as being more of a drama than an action film, depending on your perspective. It was directed by Shawn Levy with a screenplay by John Gatins as loosely based on a short story by Richard Matheson entitled Steel.

Hugh Jackman on the set of Real Steel in July ...Image via WikipediaIn the not so distant future of 2020, human boxing has been replaced by robot boxing due to the ability to push the level of violence to a level far higher than what can be done with humans. Thus we meet Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), a former boxer who now tries to make money by arranging robot boxing matches outside of the formal leagues. He's neck-deep in debt and it doesn't help when his latest robot, Ambush, is destroyed in a match with a bull owned by Ricky (Kevin Durand). And since he had agreed to be $20,000 on the match, his troubles are just beginning.

But just before he manages his escape, he's informed that his ex-girlfriend has died and that his son, 11 year old Max (Dakota Goyo), is now in the hands of the state. Thus he rushes off to the hearing to determine his fate, although in his mind he only plans on signing him away to the state given he hasn't been involved in the boy's life at all in recent years. There he finds that the boy's aunt and his girlfriend's sister, Debra (Hope Davis) are making a bid for full custody. Since Charlie realizes she has married the rather wealthy Marvin (James Rebhorn), he makes a deal to sign over the full custody rights to them in exchange for $100,000. The only caveat is that the boy will spend the summer with him since Debra and Marvin are scheduled to have a vacation in Italy.

Now all this back story isn't back story at all. I'm sure a lot of folks entered the theater just expecting a lot of CGI violence with a paper thin plot trying to hold the scenes of the various matches together. Instead, this is really a solid and emotionally powerful story, which is what really makes this movie work on so many levels.

The star of the show, at least in my mind, is the young Dakota Goyo. This 12 year old was pretty amazing in the movie given he had to represent a rather precocious boy whose perspective in life was already a tad jaded given all that had happened to him. And his intelligence allows him to immediately pick up that Charlie had essentially sold him away instead of even trying to fight for his rights as a father. But he's not some helpless kid but is a strong counterpoint to Charlie and the two are often debating as equals throughout the movie.

Then there's Atom, the old sparring robot that Max eventually finds and adopts as his own. The two manage to form a pretty realistic relationship of sorts despite the fact he's only a CGI construct. Here credit has to go to the folks behind the scenes who brought Atom to life and made sure that he managed to convey some sense of realism and emotion despite not being able to speak. The depictions of the growing bond between the two are totally killer- they're the kinds of images we all had in our heads at one point in our childhoods had we wished to have a robot of our own some day.

Hugh Jackman was pretty good in this movie as well. Beyond how impressive he looks physically, he feels right at home in the almost carnival atmosphere they subject him to as he travels across small town America arranging fights and struggling to make sense of what sort of a relationship he's supposed to form with his estranged son. There's also that odd bit with Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lily), the daughter of his former boxing coach. I never really got the point of all those scenes and Bailey was definitely one of the more one-dimensional characters in the movie. This too away from this a wee bit, but in the end you're really paying to see the father-son interaction here, and that of the boy and his robot.

The movie felt like the modern day equivalent of what The Lion King felt like to me in my childhood. It's just that kind of a story that has you re-examining the relationship yo share with your own father and wonder how things might be better. And thus that kind of emotional resonance is definitely worth high praise in my book. It's the kind of artistry that we don't see as often in movies as of late.

Real Steel is a very real movie that just tries to tell the story between an estranged father and his son with some very well-animated CGI robots who just happen to be fighting here and there. Thus the movie gets 4.5 funny dance moves that Max and Atom perform before their matches out of a possible 5.




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