Real Steel (2011) ***1/2
dir. Shawn Levy
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lily, Karl Yune, Olga Fonda
By Greg Klymkiw
"Battling Maxo, B2, heavyweight, accompanied by his manager and handler, arrives in Maynard, Kansas, for a scheduled six-round bout. Battling Maxo is a robot, or, to be exact, an android, definition: 'an automaton resembling a human being.' [...] This is the story of that scheduled six-round bout, more specifically the story of two men shortly to face that remorseless truth: that no law can be passed which will abolish cruelty or desperate need - nor, for that matter, blind animal courage." - Rod Serling's introduction to Steel, written by the legendary Richard Matheson in Season 5, Episode 122 of The Twilight Zone, the greatest TV anthology series of all time.
There is virtually nothing original about Real Steel, an amalgam of Rocky, The Champ and based partially upon Richard Matheson's short story and Twilight Zone teleplay Steel, and in spite of the fact that it's cobbled together by as many old parts as its hero, a fighting robot, this is one of the most entertaining, satisfying, uplifting, thrilling and, uh, original movies to hit the multiplexes in ages. Even its most "original" element, however, isn't even all that original, but given the state of current American mainstream cinema, it's fresh as a daisy.
The element I refer to is one that seems to have many reviewers' tits/nuts in a wringer. Many of them are whining about how unsympathetic the central character Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is. Cry me a river.
Oh woe is me, the hero is a prick!
And yeah, for a good chunk of the film's running time, Charlie is no poster boy for sympathy. He's a washed-up former boxer in a not-too-distant future where humans have been replaced in the ring by mega-robots and controlled by human beings at computers. Charlie owes money left, right and centre. He owns a ramshackle robot that he tours on the rural rodeo sideshow circuit - competing in sleazy affairs where rednecks cheer as hunks of metal pummel animals with their steely fists.
Unfortunately for Charlie, also an inveterate gambler and womanizer, the tables turn and a 2000 lb. bull destroys his robot in the ring while our "hero" is flirting with some corn-fed inbred babe in the audience. Broke, in debt well beyond his means to any number of thugs and bereft of his only means of money, he's more than delighted to find out that his ex-wife has died and that his 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo) needs him. Well, if Charlie didn't need dough. he'd ignore the order to appear in court and let his flesh and blood be taken in as a ward of the state. Luckily, he knows his wealthy in-laws desperately want to adopt the child so he grudgingly shows up and makes a back room deal. He "sells" his son to the in-laws for $100,000.
Alas, he must agree to take the kid for the summer as the in-laws have a previously scheduled and very extended European vacation ahead of them. With a whack of cash in hand, he hightails over to his on-again-off-again girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lily), the owner of a ramshackle robot training gym and robot mechanic. His plan is to dump the kid in her care while he buys a new robot to hit the circuits again.
What a guy! He's a loser, a gambler, an itinerant no-account AND he's happy to abandon his kid after the death of his mother - not just once, but twice. And this is just the first twenty minutes or so of Real Steel. Plenty of running time for more uncaring, anti-social behaviour. BUT, also plenty more running time for - YOU GUESSED IT!!! - REDEMPTION!!!
Here's the deal. Within the context of contemporary American studio pictures, characters like Charlie almost never exist. Oh sure, there's occasionally a few meagre nods to "darkness" in such recent boxing pictures as Warrior and the overrated The Fighter, but Charlie is truly a character whose soul belongs to that great era of 70s cinema where central male characters could be major pricks, but we kind of liked them in spite of this.
And sure, while even Real Steel charges predictably to those inevitable moments where he re-connects with his child, his girlfriend and with the help, love and support of both, clambers out of the gutter and eventually becomes a winner again, what keeps it going is a first-rate script, great performances and superb direction. More importantly, it's a BIG picture - bigger than life!!! Big emotions! Big battles! High stakes! It has the scope of a great studio picture, but it actually feels like it's been made by people who know and love movies.
Watching the movie, I had two odd feelings pulsing through me - one, that I was loving every second of the picture and two, that I KNEW it was the kind of picture - exactly the kind of picture in terms of plot, theme AND craft - that I'd have absolutely loved as a kid. It's a wonderful, tingly feeling to be watching a big studio picture as an adult that allows you to experience a flawed mature central character against the backdrop of pure fantasy - engineered with precision and heart.
The Real Steel screenplay does not only tap into familiar territory in terms of great uplifting boxing pictures of the past, but it also comes from the seed of a very dark place - THE TWILIGHT ZONE! The picture's inspiration is from one of the greatest episodes of Rod Serling's extraordinary television anthology series. From his own short story "Steel", Richard Matheson - arguably one of the best, if not THE best genre writer of the 20th century - wrote the sad, dark tale of a washed-up ex-boxer (played by Lee-FUCKING-Marvin) who, like Hugh Jackman's character in Real Steel is trolling the dregs of a robot boxing circuit and has to make some tough decisions when faced with the possibility of losing what precious little he's got. It's an astounding episode - one that devastated me as a kid when I first saw it, haunted me for years and still gets to me whenever I see it again.
Where this new feature film parts company with the original source, however, is that it's set in a world where people have become bored watching human beings fight and actually prefer seeing machines do the battle. Matheson's story is set in a future where human boxing matches have been outlawed altogether. The latter, while plausible to Hollywood Liberals in the 50s and 60s and, in fact to many of those watching at the time, would not work as well in a contemporary context since it's become so clear that the Great Unwashed will never really tire of watching destruction, but in a world of cel phones, computers, the internet, Playbox, Wii, Twitter and other electronically mediated forms of living, I'd buy that people could get bored and stupid enough to want to see huge cool-looking robots kicking each others steely butts.
And it's the fight scenes of Real Steel that provide all the necessary set-pieces to give us some rock 'em sock 'em action (not unlike the old Rock' Em Sock 'Em Robots we all used to play with as kids) on a mega scale. The robots have personality and are designed so brilliantly that they are completely recognizable as distinct entities (unlike the mish-mash of robots in the Transformers pictures). This probably has a lot to do with the fact that the robots are puppets controlled by humans with digital enhancements and are not PURELY digital, but in fairness to director Shawn Levy, his cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Avatar) and editor Dean Zimmerman, the Real Steel fight scenes are gorgeously choreographed, shot and cut. We actually get to see the choreography of the fights instead of all the close-to-medium-shot herky-jerky shooting and cutting so many films resort to.
Most importantly, the screenplay by John Gatins is NOT action packed with just fight scenes. It has - gulp - characters, a compelling (if familiar) tale and what's surprising - especially given the two-hour-plus running time - is that it's never boring and seems actually much shorter. The bottom line is that the movie has enough well-etched breathing space to allow for action scenes that have emotional resonance to the characters and plot (and hence, for us) instead of serving merely as grinding, noisy, visceral thrills. That said, it also hits the sort of satisfying demographically-influenced check-marks to ensure big success. Jackman is a driven handsome tough-as-nails prick hero in need of redemption, his girlfriend is a babe, the villain (mouth-watering Olga Fonda) is a babe and the kid - yeah, he's cute. Real cute - especially when he does hip-hop moves with the robot. On paper, something like that would sicken me, but in execution, it works.
These, of course, are hallmarks of great studio pictures in any age and I'm actually pleased to see they're not abandoned. It's all part of a great package. We get an uplifting action picture for the whole family - for kids AND kids of ALL ages.
For me, the true revelation in Real Steel is Hugh Jackman. He's a terrific actor with definite screen presence, but the "negative" characteristics of his character are what he attacks with a vengeance. He's such a prick that we hope he won't be. At times, he embodies the sort of figure that might have haunted John Huston's world of tank-town punch-drunk losers in Fat City and yet, here he is in a movie from the director of (!!!!!) Night at the Museum, executive produced by Spielberg and from a division of Disney Studios.
That's pretty cool.