'Real Steel' Is Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em Fun
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
If I were 11 years old, I'm sure I would think "Real Steel" was the greatest film ever made. Much like my actual favorite film when I was 11, "The Valley of Gwangi," "Real Steel" uses special effects to combine two things that previously haven't gone together but which individually are, to the 11-year-old mind, awesome. In "Valley," it was cowboys and dinosaurs. In "Steel," it's boxing and robots. The technology of special effects has advanced, and if the science of storytelling has not made similar leaps, well, your kids will at the least love its bluster of bloodless battles and surface of shiny sentimentality.
A few years from now, ex-boxer Charlie Kenton -- Hugh Jackman with the razzle-dazzle scruffy showmanship of a Damon Runyon character -- operates on the low-level end of robot boxing, the super-popular sport that's decimated both regular boxing and MMA by providing high-tech heavy metal thunder that flesh-and-blood boxers could never dream of dishing out or taking. (In one of the film's more gulp-and-you-can-swallow-it moments, it's suggested that the future audience's boredom with boxing was solved by giving boxing to the robots and not, say, giving knives to the boxers.) Charlie is in debt to a scruffy foe (Kevin Durand), on the outs with his promoter (Anthony Mackie) and trying the long-suffering patience of his trainer's daughter (Evangeline Lilly). He is also, after a terrible accident and a bit of arm-twisting, suddenly back in the life of his 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo).
Charlie's taking Max for a few months to help Max's aunt's husband (James Rebhorn, from the Mount Rushmore of character actors) get in one last vacation before taking the boy in; Charlie gets cash. Will Charlie and Max bond, especially when they find an abandoned training robot, Atom, in a junkyard and find sudden success on the circuit with the combination of Charlie's experience, Max's pluck and Atom's invulnerable, iron-clad spirit?
Directed by Shawn Levy (of "Night at the Museum" and "Date Night"), "Real Steel" earns no small amount of points for being better than it might have been. Levy's not exactly an auteur -- he's more of a CEO, bringing together diverse departments to deliver the product on time -- but he's smart, and he makes several choices that help the film along even as it shamelessly copies "Over the Top," "The Champ" and several "Rocky" films. (Ironically, though, even with its cartoony wacky robots and blink-and-you'll-miss-them cardboard villains, "Real Steel" is less cliché -- and less insulting to the intelligence — than the flesh-and-blood, can-you-believe-these-men-are-brothers "Warrior.")
The fight choreography is all by Sugar Ray Leonard, and the special effects robots are significantly enhanced by the fact that in many cases Levy and his team built practical robots -- it's good to see Atom moving loose and fast in the ring, for example, but when Max hoses the mud-covered robot down for a couple hours, the sense of weight and water and metal isn't just pretty pixels shimmering in (and as) thin air. Levy explained to the press that he slowed the motion-capture footage of his fighters down to exactly 89 percent when he turned them into robots, giving them a sense of mass and menace that, frankly, Michael Bay still can't figure out how to do in the "Transformers" films with infinitely more money.
Goyo is also easy to watch -- petulant, plucky, wounded at first but warming slowly. He has a few moments where you expect a flashing title card to come up on-screen -- KID ACTOR ACTING -- but by and large he's naturalistic and charismatic. Jackman can do this kind of stuff in his sleep, so it's nice that he doesn't. He's a good scene partner to Goyo, and also tackles the physical challenges well. (Atom has a chip/control setting that lets him mirror his "trainer" move for move, so Charlie has to get back in touch with his long-lost warrior's way, even as he becomes a better dad. Or, more briefly, MONTAGE!) Pumped up by clanging action that spills hydraulics, not blood, and warmed up by father-son stuff that pushes at your heart gently without stabbing at it with a blunt stick, "Real Steel" is a well-made, well-managed family fighting fantasy that combines high tech and low aspirations to go the distance in fairly lightweight fashion.James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.
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