Review: Real Steel

Before you read this review and/or see Dreamworks‘ Real Steel you need to do one thing. Forget every film that is mentioned as having being directed by Shawn Levy in the promotional campaign. Yes that means Cheaper By The Dozen, Night At The Museum and the 2006 remake of The Pink Panther which frankly, was terrible. Real Steel is Levy wanting to create a different machine; one that moves within its own near future universe where robotic pugilists battle it out for titles and prize money in the same structure in which we saw Maximus slice his way from the dustbowls of North Africa to spill blood in the Colosseum and entertain the rich and powerful. The year is 2020 and human boxing has become obsolete due to the rise of more extreme forms of entertainment like Mixed Martial Arts and Muay Thai. Money is taken out of boxing and so promoters have to come up with the next best thing- robots! We are told during the course of the film that initially, creators wanted their fighters to appear as human-like as possible so the crowds could enjoy brutal action without the limitations of health and safety which is a telling comment on today’s society. Then as technology progressed, so did the machines and they started to be designed to inflict as much damage to another robot as possible. Kind of like Robot Wars only instead of geeky men hanging about in garages building radio controlled cars with angle grinders welded on, we get stereotypes such as crazy white trash punks, racist Texan thugs and genius Japanese techno wizards (who to be fair, would definitely lead the way in this sport) building mini Transformers that have special skillsets which are perfectly tailored for the inevitable video game adaptation.

In to this world steps Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton- a washed up boxer who was once a contender, now travelling the land in search of a few bucks to tide him over. He lives with his ex-girlfriend Bailey, played by Evangeline Lily, at her father’s old boxing gym where they build robots (yes, she’s pretty handy with a wrench) to enter in to the underground brawls where sweaty low lives compete for cold, hard cash. Charlie has hit bottom and he’s desperate to pay off the massive debts he owes. At this point, he learns that the wife he abandoned has died and he has legal custody of their son, Max played by newbie, Dakota Goyo.

And here’s where the problems begin. There’s no other way to say this other than Charlie is an absolute bastard. Whereas in previous films such as the X-Men franchise or even Australia, Jackman has honed the gruff, hard as nails leading man character who still manages charm and humour the audience in equal measure, here he is just mean. Really mean. As in the sort of character who abandons his child, sells him, leaves him in the rain on the edge of a cliff and gives him a can of Red Bull for dinner. Childline would have a field day. The thing is, in most films this sort of character would have some redeeming features and would actively want to change they way they are or at least have a reason for being the way they are. Jackman does his best with what he’s given and injects a fair amount of comedy in to the role in what can be assumed is an effort to make Charlie likeable. It just about works and Jackman can handle comedy very well but you still won’t care if he wins or loses fights. Charlie is not a smart man and he admits this. You get the sense that in this world of emotionless robot fighters, Levy wanted to make the human characters really human. They make mistakes, they aren’t always brave and they are greedy. This idea hints at something deeper in the film but the script doesn’t allow us in to any of the characters who remain shallow and lacking any purpose other than to move the plot along.

James Rebhorn starts off as a wealthy man who is happy to use his money to keep his wife and Max’s aunt, Hope Davis, happy but then after the film sets up the main chunk of the story, both he and Davis are ignored until the end where they are thrown in again to help wrap up Charlie’s path through the film. The ever reliable Anthony Mackie as the underworld’s fight announcer and bet taker has fun and lends some edge to a film which thinks it’s gritty and even though he runs with a slightly sketchy element of society, he displays a fleck of honesty which is lacking in most of the other characters. By contrast, Kevin Durand takes a dual role as two of the aformentioned stereotypes (not the Japanese one obviously) and has a riot with them. As Charlie’s rival, Ricky, Durand delivers one of the most despicable characters in a family film this year which is probably why we see Charlie as a good guy. Karl Yune as the aformentioned Japanese genius robot creator dresses like a rock star and frowns his way through the film with a cool ease and arrogance.

The real star of this film is twelve year old Dakota Goyo who you will have probably seen this year playing the young Thor. Whenever he is on screen the film is given life as he holds his own against Jackman’s insults, even taking him down a peg or two on more than one occasion. Max is much like the young Anakin Skywalker in attitude and intelligence and he becomes a skilled competitor in the ring although we are never shown how being good at video games (the Japanese ones are the best apparently) means you can instantly possess the knowledge to build a robot. This kid is obviously a huge talent and he swings from enthusiasm to emotion with the blink of an eye. Executive producer Steven Spielberg is someone who can spot a child star with ease and one suspects he had some input in the casting here. Max is funny, driven and extremely confident and as he dances in to the big leagues with the eight foot robot, Atom, shadowing his every move he owns the screen.

You may have noticed that the marketing campaign stresses Real Steel as an action-drama and that unlike Transformers, the mechanical marvels are not the main selling point. Levy himself has said this is a story about family more than anything, but when the script feels like a first draft with very little understanding of the characters you begin not to care and start hoping that at the very least the action scenes hold up. It is perhaps unfortunate that Real Steel arrives on screen after the stunningly eye watering 3D sequences unleashed in Transformers 3. There are moments which are very cool indeed but fights descend in to repetitive slug fests taking place in the corner. The last fight especially is really underwhelming when you consider the opponent. This should have been Rocky vs. Apollo Creed but with microprocessors and pneumatic fists, yet Levy, although well versed in big budget effects, still looks like he’s learning how to direct bruising action. Nor do we care about the robots themselves. One of the standout and darkest moments in the film is a fight between men, not machines.

There are legendary fighters in this world with badass sounding names and actually, little touches in the background of the film hint at a universe which has been developed with great detail and loving attention. Max’s tee shirt or the adverts for Xbox 720 and the retro cyborg round card girls show us this world has its own fan culture and aim to get us involved too. You get the sense that Levy is really passionate about this film and the story it is trying to tell, and you have to give him credit for trying to create an original film in a year filled with remakes and sequels (although this is loosely based on a short story by Richard Matheson). Real Steel should have been a film about family, corporations, greed and courage. In the end we are left with a film that is more sell than steel; it’s rust and muscle replaced by a more family friendly commercial fare which is quite ironic after you hear Max’s speech about the little guy. It’s not by any means a bad film but it’s as if it’s control systems have been frazzled by suits who’s job it is to recognise a target audience. It is confused by what it wants to say and do, thus failing to capture our hearts in the same way that better, Oscar winning films like Million Dollar Baby have done many times before. This is a respectable new direction for Levy however and it will be interesting to see what he does next…

Real Steel is out in the UK on October 14th

You can visit the official website and watch the trailer here.


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