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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Movie Review: REAL STEEL


"We fight smart, be patient and pray. Seriously, pray!"
-- Charlie Kenton

Real Steel is a 2011 sports drama directed by Shawn Levy that tells a tale of a futuristic boxing world where robots have replaced humans as the fighters in the ring. Former boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) become a boxing robot controller, but after losing a few bets, he's fallen on some hard times. To make matters worse, he learns that his ex-wife has passed away, leaving his eleven-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo) in his custody. Charlie reluctantly takes Max on a trip to purchase a new robot, but after that bot is destroyed in a fight, he's left downtrodden and undetermined. While the two rummage through a landfill looking for robot parts, Max stumbles upon a complete and functional sparring bot with which he takes an immediate liking. With the help of his longtime partner and on-again, off-again romance Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly), the father-and-son duo attempts to climb the ranks of the boxing world with this unlikeliest of champions that they name Atom.

When I first started seeing the trailers for this film last year, I thought it might prove to be a fun little movie that wouldn't prove to be more than a good popcorn flick. I'll generally watch anything with which Hugh Jackman is associated, and when you add fighting robots to the mix, this seemed like a surefire hit to draw me to the box office. However, the film came and went during its theatrical run, earning nearly $300 million dollars worldwide, and I did not have an opportunity to go see it. After scoring an Academy Award nomination for its visual effects, I wanted to give it a view before the actual awards ceremony.

There's something about the sport of boxing that has always translated well onto the silver screen. While plenty of sports movies have received numerous accolades, it seems that boxing flicks generally have the most success. Look at the original Rocky film from 1976, or Million Dollar Baby in 2004, or more recently, take a look at 2010's The Fighter? All three managed to scare up Best Picture nominations, and the former took home the Oscar statuette. I personally think that the appeal of boxing-central films is the ability to focus on one central character rather than a team as a whole. This personalized story gives the audience a lone figure with which to relate, rather than finding one individual on a team that strikes up their liking. Rather than having a team striving for a common goal, we have the story of one man or woman trying to beat the odds and fight through each opponent on their way to the top. Isn't that what our everyday lives are all about?

And so, the biggest issue with Real Steel was going to be whether it would be able to strike that emotional chord whilst using robots as the central fighters. While the film doesn't really stray too far from the basic clich├ęs of every other boxing movie we've ever seen, we do get a taste of that character development in both the Charlie and the Max characters, although Charlie's arc is much larger and much stronger than Max's. We see the struggles of an aging former boxer who's trying his best to make it to the top in the sport he loves despite its ever-changing face. In that, we're getting a decent tale, but aside from that, the basic outlines of the screenplay are pretty darn predictable if you've ever seen any sort of boxing movie before.

The acting is pretty good considering the type of film we're getting. Jackman does fine with his leading role, and he has a good rapport with the young talent in Dakota Goyo, who is decent at best. The boy got a little annoying throughout the film, and although he ultimately proves to be endearing, there were a few moments where I just wanted him to shut up. Lilly is good in her supporting role, and be on the lookout for limited, albeit decent, performances from the likes of Anthony Mackie and Kevin Durand. Even Hope Davis and James Rebhorn make small appearances.

The biggest draw of the film has to be the special effects, which prove to be much more well-done than I had originally thought they would be. While it's not really offering anything spectacular or new to the visual effects field, it proves to be quite the visual delight, especially once the robots enter the ring. So, if you're big on great visual quality, this one's probably right up your alley.

I don't want to go as far as to say that Real Steel is all style and no substance because it does have a great emotional foundation for anyone willing to enjoy it. Sure, the film's premise is a little bit out there, and the screenplay follows the rote ideas of every boxing film that has ever come before it. That being said, the futuristic twist and the visual effects make this a fun little popcorn flick, and I have to say that I was thoroughly engaged with it from start to finish. It's entertainment at its most basic, and that's what movies are all about.

Movie Review Summary
Grade: B
1.5 Thumbs Up

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