Directed by Shawn Levy
Is Real Steel a Reel Steal? I don’t even know what that sentence would mean, but the answer is yes. Yes it is.
Since that opening makes no sense, let’s delve deeper into the robotic heart of Real Steel. Loosely based on a short story by Richard Matheson (author of I am Legend and Star Trek‘s “The Enemy Within”) that has already been made into a Twilight Zone episode, Real Steel instead goes more Rocky and more father and son bonding movie. And there’s also the Rock’em Sock’em Robots.
As every review will mention the Rock’em Sock’em Robots, I might as well, because that’s what everyone thought when they saw the first trailer. And that’s about all I knew going in to the free advanced screening (once again, TarsTarkas.NET sells out!) So it is pretty good with the fighting robots, except the fact the film is about a father and son bonding, the training robots to fight aspect is just flavor. And to sell toys. Toys that are similar enough that well-meaning grandparents will buy them instead of Transformers. Well, the world needs Go-Bots. But Real Steel is beyond Go-Bots. Real Steel is a flick with some heart. A flick where robots who don’t talk and are controlled remotely by humans have more personality that most of the robots in Transformers. A flick where someone cared about the story almost as much as the robot fighting scenes. It isn’t a great flick, but it isn’t terrible.
In the near future, boxing and other fighting sports has all been replaced by robot fighting. The major robot fighting leagues are all full of big money, but our hero Charlie Kenton is traveling to small county fairs with his battle-scarred old robot, which is promptly destroyed in the first bout we see. Charlie is in debt up to his eyeballs, and incurs even more when a bet goes awry and he has to flee.
For some reason there are two sequences one after another showing Charlie being a moron and getting his robot trashed. It’s almost as if they didn’t think that we would understand that Charlie has some growing up to do and makes rash, dumb decisions. Speaking of the two sequences, the first one I have several problems with. The opening sequence has a robot fighting a bull at a county fair in Texas. That’s how I want to open a film, seeing an animal be abused while a bunch of drunken rednecks hoot and holler. Of course, the film has the robot get destroyed by the bull, which is supposed to make everything okay. Except the fact that we’re supposed to root for a guy who controls a robot that will be senselessly beating large animals to death. Why wasn’t the bull a damn robot? They could have made it one of those bull riding machines modified to fight or something. Even though the scenes of the animal being beaten are all CGI, it’s not the way to open the film, and Real Steel had a way to go before it won me back.
But it eventually did. Before Charlie runs off after the first battle, he is notified that his former girlfriend has died. The one he had a son with, a son he never sees and knows little about. Charlie is one of those guys who turns this into an attempt to make some money to keep his robot fighting career on track, and strikes a deal with the rich husband of the boy’s aunt for money in exchange for watching the kid while the two vacation in Europe. Son Max instantly knows his dad is up to no good, and their reunion is a tense one, with Charlie attempting to pawn Max off on gym trainer (and former lover and daughter of his boxing coach) Bailey Tallet. Despite this, Max attempts to be the voice of reason as Charlies goes to squander his brand new robot in an ill-advised battle.
A trip to a junkyard later in search of robot parts, and Max ends up finding a whole robot. A robot that still works. A robot that was a training robot from the old Generation 2 years. Named Atom, Max takes an immediate shine and is keen on getting his robot to fight. Atom is small, rusty, run down. But he has a shadow function, a feature that allows him to mimic the moves of a designated target and get the moves programmed in. The function is rare enough people keep commenting on how rare it is. But it’s like no one bothers to download the shadow software that is probably so old it is abandonware at this point. Atom was built to get beat on during training, so he’s able to take a lot of punishment in the ring.
Regardless, soon Atom is fighting robots and making a name for himself, while Charlie and Max begin to bond over their shared love of robots and having the robots beat the crap out of other robots. Charlie even becomes the straight man to Max’s rash actions. This juxtaposition causes Charlie to grow as a person, and the money from the fights helps pay off his debts. Charlie even shows off his fighting moves as he helps program in the fighting skills with the shadow functions.
Atom soon starts to get recognized, and an invite to the official Robot Fighting Leagues is forthcoming. There, we see the mega-evil-super-awesome-unbeatable robot, Zeus. The team behind Zeus are cartoonish supervillains, I half expect them to introduce themselves with a rhyming poem and have a talking cat. The wealthy and entitled Russian owner Farra Lemkova (Olga Fonda) and the eccentric and snobbish Japanese creator Tak Mashido (Karl Yune), both of who stumble over fake accents and evil overacting. Their unbeatable robot is lorded over the rest of the fighting league.
But we can’t have a Rockyish movie if we don’t have our Rocky moment, so you know Atom will soon be fighting the unbeatable Zeus, looking to change the adjective before the name of the champion.
Setting the film in the near future allows for it to show a few random new technologies without forcing the film to be filled with flying cars and hologram hats. The signs we’re in the future (besides the giant fighting robots…a natural evolution from the old Robot Wars shows) are the wind generators everywhere, futuristic phones that have a lot of see-through sections (in fact, most of the computer equipment screens are made transparent to make it futuristic, even though that will probably make it harder to read! There is also a sign for the XBox 720. But by then, should they be at XBox 1440?
There are problems, of course. The overall film doesn’t quite gel together smoothly, several of the confrontations seemed forced. Besides the aforementioned animal abuse, the cowboy gambling guy seems thrown in to have another random cardboard villain. The girls at the county fair was also ridiculous, and maybe thrown in to show Charlie isn’t good with kids? But it was useless and just a pointless way to get the director’s daughters in the film. The film is supposed to be a father and son film, but at times it runs off and does other films instead. One scene we’ll be Rocky, the next scene we’ll be American Graffiti 2, and then verve to Robot Jox. There’s also a callback to “Your secret’s safe with me” that doesn’t work at all when you think about it.
During the county fair fight, a spectator is injured as a robot arm flies into the stands. He does nothing but sort of crouch over like he’s hurt, but it is never mentioned or referred to. One would think, with giant robot parts flying all over as they are beat off the metal combatants, that there would be more safety measures. Instead, the stands are full of kids who would be squashed by the giant metal pieces. And the county fair stands are among the more safer of the stands. Several of them have no ropes, chains, or anything! In the future, all lawyers have been killed, I guess. Shakespeare gets his wish. Maybe the robots killed them.
If you want to see a giant robot film where the robots aren’t peeing on people’s heads, you finally have one! It’s good, but it’s also serviceable to wait for DVD.
Rated 7/10 (Blasting off again, This robot needs to keep his head in the game, statue-bot!, One is the loneliest number…, a character I forgot to talk about, Zoo Fights!, Wind power…it must be…the FUTURE!!!)
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