Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Real Steel, a movie loosely based on a short story by Richard Matheson, is the story of Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) and his estranged son Max. Charlie is a former boxer trying to earn a living in a world that no longer has any interest in boxing matches featuring human fighters. Over time audiences have moved on from the small spectacle of of traditional boxing matches and now only pay the big money to watch robots slug it out in the ring, so Charlie chooses to eke out a living operating his own robot fighter.
Charlie is the kind of guy who only seems capable of making bad decisions. He rushes into every situation with a gambler's impetuousness but no eye for detail and is running out of options when it comes to staying ahead of his debts. True to form Charlie approaches the unexpected appearance of his son Max as an opportunity to score some money rather than showing any interest in the relationship for its own sake. But Max has more than his share of stubbornness and before long is acting as his dad's fighting partner.
After another disastrous bout, Charlie ends up at the junkyard looking for parts to piece together another robot when Max literally falls over an old-school robot named Atom that turns out to be just the thing to improve their fortunes.
"Real Steel" is one of those movies that has so many elements from other films that very little comes across as new. Take a little "Rocky," sprinkle in "The Champ" and add some Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots for good measure and you've got "Real Steel." That said, it's still a pretty good little movie.
Hugh Jackman has to get most of the credit for making "Real Steel" a movie worth watching. Charlie isn't a sympathetic character-- and Jackman doesn't try to make him one. He's schemes and steals his way through life and the sudden arrival of a kid doesn't change his character. Max goes toe-to-toe with Charlie but he's one of those super-precocious kids that only exist in the movies. He's sympathetic and cute in a predictably smart-mouthed kind of way, but we've seen him before. Charlie isn't anything new either, but at least he takes his time evolving into someone worthwhile.
The story isn't set that far into the future so the world hasn't changed that much. The fights are a realistic combination of video/gladiatorial game that actually seem somewhat harmless compared to the current reality-television craze. The robots take a beating, sometimes to the point of being ripped apart, but it's not cringe-worthy without the blood involved in a real-world fight. There is a slight attempt to humanize Atom but there are never any glimmers of sentience beyond the imagination of the characters, so it's hard to connect to the robot as the underdog of the story beyond a superficial level. Charlie and Max do work in that role however and there's a certain sweetness in seeing heart triumph over advanced technology.
"Real Steel" works in that it's a film that successfully plays on the audience's emotions. Whether it's the evolution of Charlie's relationship with Max, the reconnection between Charlie and his onetime love Bailey (Evangeline Lilly) or the climactic title-fight, there's a lot of story to cheer for. Sure it's somewhat cookie-cutter but it's still an entertaining way to spend two hours. And it's a diversion you can watch with your kids-- something I don't take for granted these days. I might wish that the film had explored the idea of replacing fighters with robots and Charlie's feelings about that-- it seemed like a missed opportunity that was mostly wasted on setting up the final shadow-boxing scene. However "Real Steel" is strictly light entertainment--but it's also good fun and sometimes that's all you really need.