Friday, October 7, 2011

'Real Steel' needs more grit, less melodrama

By Steve Crum

Real Steel could have been, should have been much more. Based on Richard Matheson’s 1956 short story and his gritty 1964 Twilight Zone TV episode, Steel (starring Lee Marvin), Real Steel is neither gritty nor classic. Instead, it succeeds as a sort of Family Channel robot bonding tale, in some ways a live action Iron Giant. Such is far from my expectations.

Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) and screenwriter John Gatins have circumvented Matheson’s original premise of a down and out boxer who literally climbs inside his robot boxer for a desperately needed final victory. In this reboot (or re-robot), the focus is on both Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) and his estranged, 11 year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo). Sure, there are various robots along the way, and they look cool while performing spectacularly. As one robot after another is beaten into scrap iron, from Ambush (who fights live bulls at rodeos) to the flashy import Noisy Boy, Charlie’s great metal hope is accidentally discovered mostly buried at a metal parts junkyard. Soon after named Atom, the robot has a literal hand in saving Max’s life. The boy is immediately smitten with Atom, and proceeds to rebuild and recondition the discarded sparring-bot to champion status.

The premise for Real Steel is, nonetheless, fascinating. Set in a future of human-less (and bloodless) boxing matches, robots are the superstars. (Humans still coach, ref, and promote the matches.) Championship bouts are held at the Crash Palace, the Madison Square Garden of tomorrow. It is interesting that, except for the robots and the technology involved in the matches (humans sometimes operate computer control panels to control the robots), the future looks like our present day.

For example, take the impressive opening sequence set in a county fair rodeo arena, which features the robot Ambush tussling with an 800 pound raging bull--not played by De Niro. The set resembles any typical rodeo of today, including screaming fans. As the robot matador tries to clobber the beast into unconsciousness, he/it loses a leg, yet tries to continue fighting, balancing on his good one. The mistake occurs due to trainer Charlie’s neglect at managing Ambush’s remote control on the sidelines. This is the best sequence in the film because of its no frills, bare-boned action. No animals were harmed during the making of this movie, but plenty of robots were.

There are sub-plots of Charlie’s wheeling and dealing with bookies and loan sharks (he is over his head for thousands), and his friendship with robot tech Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly). But the crux of the story centers on Charlie and son Max. Via divorce, Max has exclusively lived with his mother. His mother’s sudden death forces Max to either live with his dad (Charlie) or his rich aunt and uncle. At first, Charlie is happy to sign court papers for Max to move in with his ex-wife’s sister, especially since her husband offers Charlie big bucks to legally sign the boy over to them. However, as Max becomes more involved with bot fighting, he and his father grow closer. While the father-son scenes set a positive, moral tone for the film, they are often ponderous, and distract from the core theme of battling robots, and man’s obvious need for violence, even on a simulated basis. This need for violence extends to children aka Max.

Incidentally, Sugar Ray Leonard supervised the boxing scenes, via professional boxers who were “motion-captured,” computer-wise.

Acting in Real Steel is generally very good, with Jack’s desperate trainer and Goyo’s whiz kid personas particularly impressive. But what one takes from the movie, cutting through all the human family melodrama, are some outstanding robot sequences. After all the Transformers exposure over the last few years, who would have guessed more battling bots would hook our interest? Maybe it is because Real Steel’s bots need humans to think for them.
GRADE on an A-F Scale: B-
Check out the Real Steel trailer:

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