It's funny, I've been lamenting the lack of good non-derivative and increase in media-property science fiction for a while now, so when I first saw the trailer for Real Steel I immediately pegged it as Rockem Sockem Robots: The Motion Picture.
And, I guess you could sort of say that if Mattel ever financed a Rockem Sockem Robot movie, this would probably be it. But, they didn't, and so at least Real Steel has that going for it. Now, anyone who's spent any time around the McLargehuge household knows I have a very soft spot for Boxing. Before I discovered baseball it was pretty much the only sport I followed with any regularity, and I don't mean just the heavyweight guys coming out of Don King's camp at the heigh of Pay Per View boxing's popularity, I mean spending late, late nights watching Monday (then later Thursday) Night Fights on USA Network and trying to catch all of the undercard lower weight class stuff, feathers for speed, middles for power to weight ratio, cruisers to watch the old men stagger off to retirement, etc... And from that love grew a great love of boxing movies, Raging Bull, The Champ (Both the Wallace Beery and the John Voit versions), all iterations of Rocky even Rocky 5, Tough Enough, the Every Which Way movies, The Fighter, right down to stuff like The Main Event, Diggstown, even Teen Wolf Too.
There's a small subgenre of science fiction that takes on the fight game and I think it's because the idea that we'll always derive some entertainment out of two beings hammering the ever-loving-shit out of one another, even in the distant space-age future. The two titles that come to mind immediately are Robot Jox where huge mechanized robot fights decide international political squabbles, to Arena where a pasty faced Earthling fights all manner of foam latex alien to pay off a debt to some really bad guys, both of those films, for what it's worth come from Direct To Video pioneer Charles Band.
I love those movies too.
One thing ALL of the boxing movies have in common, minus Raging Bull, is the scrappy kid and the down on his luck palooka struggling to regain some shadow of his former glory. Well in Real Steel we get that in spades. Actually, it's entirely possible to make the argument that Real Steel is a robot-filled remake of The Champ, but you know what, it's been a long time since we had one of those. Too long perhaps.
We meet Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) as he's dodging creditors and running the far-far-far off the beaten track robot fighting circuit with a bashed up piece of shit called Ambush. It doesn't take long for Charlie's hubris to get Ambush wrecked, and another more expensive robot wrecked mere days later that. Charlie learns that he's the father to a long lost girlfriend's kid. Meet Max (Dakota Goyo) a video gamer and World Robot Boxing enthusiast who's about to be signed over to his mother's sister (Hope Davis) when Charlie makes a deal to take Charlie for the summer and pull in a quick 100 grand, easily enough to pay off the legbreakers who keep hounding him, and the girl who owns the gym where Charlie lives.
Charlie though, like all palookas, isn't smart enough to walk away from the table when he's got a stack of chips, and worse, is completely unable to see the depth of the stupid mistakes he makes. Before long he's out 50 grand, one former champion robot straight from Japan, and saddled with a kid who manages to be both sweet and extremely irritating at the same time.
Charlie used to be a pro boxer before the world, in a constant clamor for more violent and destructive entertaining evolved the sport of Robot Boxing into the sensation it is today. Human boxers are unheard of now. And when Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), the daughter of Charlie's old boxing mentor and current owner of the gym where Charlie lives (when he isn't out touring the backwoods county fairs and underground robot fights of America) describes how Charlie once almost took out the #2 man in what was supposed to be a tomato can fight, we get to see the glimmers of the athlete that he used to be.
Once Max stumbles onto a way-outdated sparring robot buried in a junkyard, named Atom, he and Charlie set off on a plan to raise enough money to keep Charlie from being killed to death by all of his creditors. Now, with Max in the picture he's got a little more to live for even if at the beginning he doesn't realize it.
Real Steel hits every boxing movie cliché with a right cross, two left jabs and a brutal uppercut. And you know, I didn't care. I loved it.
·Down on his luck palooka? Check.
·Kid you want to alternately hug and fire into to the heart of the sun in a rocket? Check.
·Underdog fighter that no one except the aforementioned kid believes in? Check!
·Realizing that being underestimated is the palooka's superpower? Check!
·Brutal ladder of increasingly powerful opponents leading to the big match? Check!!
·The end of the second act tragedy that puts the fight in jeopardy? Oh yeah, check!
·The big match? Well, it wouldn't be a fight movie without one would it?
I never managed to stay awake through director Shawn Levy's other films, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Pink Panther (PEW!), or any of the Night at the Museum movies and while he's mainly known for very very very very light comedy. Some would say comedy for the mentally challenged, he clearly understands how to make a robot fighting movie. He doesn't overdo the sets, and allows lots of time for our main characters and Atom the robot to stand around and move in the clear light of day in natural light using real actual backgrounds. This isn't flying cars and twenty million story skyscrapers of the future, it's just a few years from today, and it everything looks pretty much like it's from today except for the fighting robots. That helps make the film visually accessible and doesn't overshadow the awesomeness of Atom and his opponents when they get into the ring.
And once they get into the ring, oh man, it's clear that Shawn Levy knows his way around what makes boxing an exciting spectator sport. The editing and pacing of the fight sequences is fantastic, and the choreography bridges the weirdness of sort of modern video game type fighting with classical toe-to-toe boxing. It's no secret that iron-jawed middleweight Sugar Ray Leonard acted as boxing consultant to this film as Atom's (and Charlie Kenton's) moves and combinations come right out of Sugar Ray's tale of the tape.
Spielberg, who produced, gets a nod or two in as well. Atom sort of looks like a big athletic kid in a hockey helmet (who rides the short bus), with big oval shaped blue eyes is the most human of the machines. He's tough and strong but gentle enough to pick up Max and not squish him into paste (a pity). The script even asserts that Atom might have a little sentience to go along with his relative cuteness, but that storyline gets thankfully dropped before it can pollute the rest of the movie.
The serviceable script is based on the short story "Steel" by Richard Matheson that was also once adapted for Season 5 of The Twilight Zone, by Matheson himself. While the film differs considerably from each iteration, the main points exist in each. This is a nice adaptation for a classic piece of science fiction.
There are some rough spots in the story, like Charlie being able to drive from LA to New York to LA in what appears to be 10 minutes, and one huge plot point that didn't seem to make it into the already lengthy 127 minute cut of the film that sets up the third act. Some of the dialogue is clunkier than the lesser robots on the fight card too.
But these are minor gripes, really. And compared to media properties and remakes and all manner of shit cinema out there, Real Steel goes a long way towards restoring my faith in Hollywood. Little McLargehuge and I walked out of the cinema smiling which is more than you can ask for from a mainstream science fiction film these days. It's probably more than you can ask from boxing too now that the masses have turned away from The Sweet Science and focused their increasingly short attention spans on the idiocy of Mixed Martial Arts.