MacGuffin Film Review – Real Steel

Film Review – Real Steel

When I heard the premise for the film Real Steel (2011), I thought it was a joke. A live action movie, based around the concept of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, where humans control machines to beat and pound one another? The very thought of it was difficult to comprehend. But here it is, fully realized, directed by Shawn Levy, who also made Cheaper by the Dozen (2003), The Pink Panther (2006), and the Night at the Museum films, and starring Hugh Jackman. Even after walking out of the movie, I was still a little dumbstruck by the absurdity of it. Can we root for a machine that has no personality, no characteristics, and is rendered out of computer-generated imagery? Can we take actors seriously while they’re performing as if they were playing a video game, complete with a controller and microphone headset?

First off, I think the film was terribly marketed. Trailers would have you believe that the movie is an action-packed, serious drama about washed up fighter Charlie (Jackman) making a comeback of sorts behind the mask of his robotic counterpart. While that is somewhat accurate, I think it would have benefited more if it were sold as a family film. Yeah, that’s right, a movie geared toward kids. The family takes center stage here, with Charlie developing a bond with his estranged son, Max (Dakota Goyo). Charlie was never a good father, and he knew that. Once Max was born, he removed himself from Max’s life, content on letting his wife take care and raise him, while Charlie continued as a low-rent boxer struggling for chump change. Now his wife is no longer in the picture, he owes money to some bad people, and his sister-in-law (Hope Davis) wants to take guardianship of Max. Charlie agrees, but unfortunately part of the agreement involves him having to take care of Max for the summer while his sister-in-law (she’s never given a name) goes on vacation with her husband (James Rebhorn). Geez, talk about good old family values.

One thing that I liked about the movie was the world that they created. Way too many movies depict the future as a hostile, treacherous, dystopian wasteland. Here, the world of the future closely resembles the world of today, with some nice touches such as advanced cell phones and computers…oh yeah, and robots. I definitely dug the design of the machines. Instead of the incomprehensible, one-million-moving-part-scrap-metal design of the Transformer robots, these are realized more coherently. They have shape and weight, and move and fight in a manner that can actually be grasped. This was actually a relief to see, a departure from other robot films of the last few years. The robots take the place of humans in combative sports; this way we get to see the mayhem and carnage that comes from the best kind of boxing and martial art matches, but without the trouble of human injury.

Things take a turn when Charlie and Max stumble upon an old sparring robot in a junkyard while searching for some spare parts. While Charlie dismisses the machine as a waste of time and energy to put back together, Max sees it as an opportunity to give something that has been overlooked a chance to make a name for itself. And it is here where I must digress just a bit. Don’t you love it when children can automatically become wiser than any adult is in a movie? They seem to know what to do almost by instinct, and no matter how much a parent or guardian will forbid them from doing something, they’ll just go right ahead with it, convinced that it’ll all turn out alright in the end. Max is no different, and he becomes so confident that his new robot (named Atom) can become a serious fighter, even possibly challenging the best robot in the world, Zeus, that no one can tell him otherwise. Yeah, that’s right, I said “Zeus.”

And wouldn’t you know it, Max was completely right. In the span of about 15 minutes, Charlie realizes the potential that Atom can bring to them. They quickly make their way up the ranks, defeating one machine after another, until a match-up with Zeus becomes a serious reality. Of course, this progression is not merely about Atom making his way up to Zeus and possibly even becoming the number one robot in the world, but it is also about the development between Charlie and Max. Charlie never knew how to be a father, and Max never had a positive male influence in his life, but through this experience together they find that element that has been missing. Sure, that sounds pretty hokey and schmaltzy when reading it. Heck, I thought it was hokey and schmaltzy while I was writing it. But I think that’s the idea that Levy was going for here. This goes back a little to the marketing of the movie. If this was marketed more to a younger crowd, with a feel-good message, I think it would have made more sense. But advertisements seemed geared towards people in their late teens or older, and I’m not sure how well this will go over with them.

The main highlight of the movie is Hugh Jackman. Jackman is a charming, charismatic actor, and the film uses that to its advantage. He’s very watchable, and while he’s supposed to be playing a down and out, broke character, there’s never any doubt that we believe he’ll come out on top, because…well…he’s Hugh Jackman. Charlie has a beautiful girlfriend (Evangeline Lilly) who has stuck by him even during his own boxing days. When he’s not traveling, he lives in a nice apartment above a large boxing gym, and what he does for a living is the exact same thing any video game nerd fantasizes about doing in real life. All in all, things don’t seem too bad for him. Jackman does a convincing enough job making us believe that he is actually controlling the robots in the ring, although I think there were a few times when seeing him jump for joy at seeing a bot getting its face smashed in came off kind of silly.

Unfortunately, the same positive feedback I have with Jackman’s performance can’t be said about his young partner, Dakota Goyo. I can’t really blame Goyo for what I think is a poor performance, because he’s coupled with a far more experienced actor. A lot of it has to do with how his character is written. I believe the writers of the film (John Gatins wrote the screenplay, with Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven providing the story) aimed to give his character a confident, never-take-no-for-an-answer kind of personality. Sometimes, this can come off as cute, with the adult characters seeing him as this spunky, precocious kid with a great attitude. That isn’t the effect here. Instead, Max is more of an annoying character than anything else. His “never say never” attitude feels hard-headed and stubborn, and I was surprised at how many of the adults seemed to let him walk all over them with his persistence. Goyo’s acting wasn’t great as well, and when the film was supposed to hit an emotional high point, his facial expressions unfortunately felt more hilariously awkward than actually touching. But again, Goyo is only twelve years old, and I’m sure he’ll get better as he gets older.

Real Steel is not a terrible movie; it’s just not a good one, either. Perhaps I’m not in its target audience, but the trailer would say that I was, and with that in mind I think it was a let down for myself. I think kids would enjoy it with its positive message about family, mixed in with cool-looking robots and a number of big fight scenes. The thing about it is that this is a movie that no one will be talking about in the next few months, and will probably be totally forgotten about in the next year. I can see myself stumbling across it while trying to find something to watch on late night TV. I’d probably stop to watch a scene or two, and then quickly move on right past it.

Final Grade: C+

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