CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: REAL STEEL
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: An abandoned boxing gym. MICHAEL ARRUDA enters from one side, followed by a large, golden robot. L.L. SOARES enters from the other, followed by a sinister-looking robot of gleaming black metal.)
MA: Nice to see you showed up.
LS: Was there ever any doubt?
(The robots enter the boxing ring in the middle of the room. LS and MA go to their robots’ corners. Both men are wearing headsets)
MA: Why don’t you begin this one?
LS: Oh, I’ll begin it all right. (to Robot): UPPERCUT!
(The black robot suddenly punches the gold one violently, knocking it backwards)
MA: Oh yeah? ROUNDHOUSE!
(The gold robot lashes out at the black one, and they start trading punches)
MA: This is fun, but we really should review the movie.
LS: Okay, okay.
This week we’re reviewing the movie REAL STEEL. This one stars WOLVERINE – I mean Hugh Jackman – as a down-on-his luck former boxer who now fights using robots, because real boxing has died out and robot boxing is the new national sport. For an explanation, they tell us something like real boxing wasn’t vicious enough, and robots can fight to the death without anyone getting hurt. Or something like that. For me, the reason real boxing is such a great sport is because it’s two men, face to face. The humanness of the sport. But let’s move on.
Jackman’s character, Charlie Kenton, is a compulsive gambler who loses regularly and owes a lot of people money. He keeps thinking his robots will get him out of the hole, but he hasn’t had very good luck with them, either.
MA: The reason he hasn’t had any luck is he’s not too swift up here (points to his head). His idea of making a decision is act first, think later. So, he’s not only a compulsive gambler, but compulsive period!
LS: Yeah, he is kind of an idiot. In an early scene, where he’s supposed to be controlling his robot, he gets distracted by a girl in the audience for a moment—even though this is his profession and he’s got a LOT of money riding on it—and because of that, his robot loses to a bull! There are other scenes where he also makes stupid moves. For an expert at this robot fighting stuff —and a former boxer himself—he sure doesn’t seem all that smart a lot of the time.
Desperate for money, Charlie finds himself in the middle of a court battle for his son, Max (Dakota Goyo). The boy’s mother has died, and Charlie doesn’t know the kid because he ditched the girl and their son when he was younger, and didn’t stay in touch. Sounds like a deadbeat dad to me.
MA: I’ll say. Early on in this movie, there’s not much to like about this guy.
LS: But it’s Hugh Jackman. You know he can’t stay as sleazy as he starts out. You know he’ll become heroic as the movie goes on, because that’s what he does! In other words, he’s more of a star than an actor, and we never once believe that he’s this Charlie guy. He’s always HUGH FRIGGIN JACKMAN.
The boy’s Aunt Debra (Hope Davis) wants to assume custody, but the courts usually give children to their remaining parent in these kinds of cases. But Charlie has clearly not been interested since Day One, so he’s more than happy to give Debra custody in exchange for some cash (he makes a deal with Debra’s rich husband, promising to keep it secret).
However, Debra and her husband are off for a vacation in Italy with their rich friends and don’t want to bring a child along, so they get Charlie to agree to watch the boy for the summer until they get back. WOW! They get custody and the first thing Debra and her husband do is fly off to Italy and leave Max behind. What a great way to start out as a new parent!! They’re as sleazy as Charlie is.
At first, the relationship between Charlie and Max is rocky.
(Suddenly, Bill Conti’s ROCKY music fills the gym, as ROCKY BALBOA enters.)
ROCKY (looking over shoulder): Yo, Adrian. I’ll be right back. I just heard my name mentioned inside this gym so I’m going to pay my respects and say hello.
MA: Hey, Rocky!
ROCKY: Yo, how’s it goin?
LS: Fine, but we really didn’t call you. I was using “rocky” as an adjective.
ROCKY: Adjective? What’s that? Some kind of swear or something?
MA: No, it’s a part of speech. Anyway, feel free to hang out while we spar over the new movie REAL STEAL.
ROCKY: Yo, Adrian! I’ll be along in a minute. I’m going to watch these guys spar over some new movie or something. Those are some pretty cool-looking robots you have there in the ring. Are those things real?
MA: Movie special effects.
ROCKY: That’s good, cuz if those things was real, I might be out of a job, you know what I’m sayin?
LS: Hey, we got a movie to review here, do you mind?
ROCKY: No, I don’t mind. I’ll just sit back and. be quiet and let you guys do whatever it is you do. Those are some big robots.
LS: COMBINATION 4!
(LS’s robot does a combination of moves and knocks MA’s robot to the mat)
MA: Hey! I was talking to ROCKY!
LS: Time to get back to the review, boyo. Pay attention!
MA: COMBINATION 18!
(MA’s robot gets up from the mat, and the two robots start fighting again)
LS: Back to REAL STEEL. As always happens in these movies, the guy and his kid grow to know and care about each other over time. (Sweet sugary music starts to play in the background). They find a common bond through the robots that Charlie uses to compete with. Eleven-year-old Max, already a video game fanatic, gets hooked on robot boxing as well, and even shows a knack for it when they acquire a new robot, Atom, when they break into a junkyard, looking for parts.
By the way, the way they find Atom is really stupid. Max slips down a cliff of junk and is about to fall to his doom, when a robotic hand reaches out from the scrap heap and saves him. In return, Max digs the robot out, intent on returning the favor. It’s just sappy. Why would a robot in a junk heap suddenly power-up and save a kid. It’s just DUMB writing.
MA: Yeah, it was a little unclear what happened there. I wasn’t sure if the robot reached out, or if his arm was just extended in that position already, hooking Max by accident as the kid slid by.
LS: Atom is an old robot that was used for sparring, and was built more to take punishment than to dish it out. But Max and Charlie change that, turning Atom into a formidable fighter. They start off by playing the underground circuit, and then eventually, as their fame grows, they go legit, scoring an official fight in the big leagues. Which leads to a final battle between scrappy Atom and the Number One robot in the business, Zeus.
Everything about this movie screams “ROCKY,” but with robots instead of people.
ROCKY: Yo, that’s me! Am I like going to be on TV or something?
LS (ignores ROCKY): It also looks like a giant version of the kids’ game Rock Em Sock Em Robots, from the control panels people use to activate the robots to the way some of them punch each other’s heads off.
MA: I know people have said that, but it didn’t really make me think of Rock Em Sock Em Robots. Sure, they both have fighting robots that compete in a boxing ring, but that’s about it.
LS: It’s enough of a similarity.
MA: But the ROCKY connection is another thing altogether. The parallels between the plot of this movie and the first ROCKY (1976) are so obvious and transparent, I think Rocky here should complain about not being credited as the source material.
ROCKY: Yo, what he said.
LS: Supposedly, according to the credits, this movie is based on the short story “Steel” by Richard Matheson (which was also an episode of the old TWILIGHT ZONE series), but, aside from the concept of robots boxing each other, the story and the movie don’t have much in common.
I like Hugh Jackman, and he’s okay here as Charlie.
MA: Okay is the key word. He certainly didn’t wow me.
LS: Of course, most people know him as Wolverine from the X-MEN movies. In REAL STEEL, Charlie is a washed-up boxer, a gambling addict, and a deadbeat dad, and yet, we like his character right away, and continue to empathize with him throughout the movie.
MA: You liked his character right away? I thought he was a jerk. Anyone who treats his son the way he did at the outset has loser written all over him, as far as I’m concerned.
LS: C’mon, it’s Hugh Jackman. You never once really believe he’s as bad as he starts out to be. You know he’ll redeem himself. It’s mandatory in this kind of movie.
MA: I still didn’t like him, and even later when he becomes more heroic, I had a hard time warming up to him.
LS: Evangeline Lilly from LOST is a real knockout as Charlie’s lover, Bailey Tallet. Her father was the man who trained Charlie as a boxer, and she’s a pretty good robot mechanic in her own right.
MA: Yep, she gets to look pretty in this one, but that’s about it. Strangely, Lilly and Jackman share no screen chemistry at all. I thought their scenes together were flat and sanitized. There’s no sexual energy to speak of.
LS: Yeah, you’re right about that. But this is a safe PG-13 movie, so I knew going in that there would be no sexual energy between them. Her role is a pretty thankless, typical Hollywood “girlfriend” role. That said, I think she’s cute as hell, and I wish she’d get better roles. She deserves to be the lead in something – not a supporting character. As she showed us in LOST, she can do more than just bat her eyes and look pretty.
MA: Compare their relationship to Rocky and Adrian from the ROCKY movies. In that series, you knew the couple loved each other. In REAL STEEL, they’re just going through the motions. Heck, in the ROCKY movies, Rocky has more of a relationship with his old crotchety trainer Mickey than Jackman has with Lilly.
MICKEY (pops up): You tells em, you bastard!
LS: I also liked Kevin Durand as the villainous Ricky, a cowboy who used to be one of Charlie’s opponents in his boxing ring days. He beat Charlie back then, and for some reason he wants to keep beating him. This guy’s got a mean streak, and he really wants to humiliate and hurt Charlie.
MA: Durand’s okay, but we really don’t know much about Ricky as a character. He’s just a stock villain and kinda bored me.
LS: We don’t know much about ANYONE in this movie. It’s all about action, and the father and son crap. It’s NOT about character development or giving us anyone who’s actually believable. So, in that context, I think Durand does a good job. I liked the little jolt of sadism he put into his role.
But, aside from Jackman, the other main character here is Max, and I guess it’s time for me to address him. I have a really mixed reaction to this kid. Sometimes, Max seemed like a real kid to me. But more often, he seemed like a cutesy Hollywood version of a kid. His growing bond with his estranged father seems believable enough, and then suddenly Max looks like a mini Justin Beiber, teaching his robot how to dance (a real wince-inducing scene). Another scene, where Max is trash-talking after a fight, challenging the ultra-rich and famous creators of the champion robot Zeus to fight his robot, was also really irritating. I had mixed feelings about Max throughout the film. I really wanted to like the kid, but there was enough about him that just plain irritated me that he never won me over completely.
MA: Yep, I’d have to agree with your assessment of Max. When he’s acting like the kid in TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991), he’s cool, but when he acts like little Anakin Skywalker in THE PHANTOM MENACE (1998), he’s annoying.
LS: I didn’t like either of those movies!
MA: In Goyo’s defense, I actually thought his performance was fine throughout. It’s the writing that’s the problem. The writer couldn’t make up his mind whether Max was supposed to be cute or street smart. The kid’s cute to begin with, so they should have stuck with street smart. The scenes you mentioned were too much “cute.” I wanted to throw up.
LS: I think I actually did throw up a little in my mouth. It tasted funny.
And it didn’t help that some of the music (by Danny Elfman, no less) is downright manipulative, and certain scenes are structured just to pull at your heart strings. Personally, I hate when a movie tries to manipulate my emotions, and I loathed those aspects of REAL STEEL.
MA: I would agree with you again.
LS: However, despite my problems with the movie, it won me over during the fight scenes. I’m guessing the robots were mostly CGI, but for once, that didn’t bother me so much. I was able to accept them as realistic-looking constructs, and the battle scenes are exciting and very well done. I guess it didn’t hurt that boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard was a consultant to the film.
MA: Yep, I liked the fight scenes too, and they were the only things that saved this movie for me.
LS: Karl Yune as Zeu’s creator Tak Machido, and his ultra-glamorous girlfriend and partner Farra Lemkova (Olga Fonda) were good at just standing around looking evil and pissed off all of the time, but I wanted to know more about these characters. Like most of the people in this movie, they’re more caricatures than characters.
The robots were cool, though, even plain old Atom. Although I could have done without his dance moves. It is interesting how he had a “shadow ability” to imitate Jackman’s fighting moves when necessary, and there are even some scenes that make us wonder how self-aware Atom really is (like when he looks at Max a certain way, or another scene when he looks at himself in a mirror).
MA: Exactly! But it’s too bad the movie doesn’t take advantage of these bits and do more with them, because as it stands, nothing comes of these moments.
LS: You’re right. But I went in to REAL STEEL expecting to completely hate it. Based on the trailer, it looked like a variation on the TRANSFORMER movies with an annoying kid. But it was actually better than I thought it would be.
While it did not win me over completely (there were too many annoying aspects about the film), it did keep me glued to the screen throughout, and I have to admit that, for the most part—as long as I didn’t think too much about what I was watching—I enjoyed this one.
MA: Well, it’s better than TRANSFORMERS, I’ll give you that much, mostly because the robots in this one don’t talk, so we’re spared their ridiculous dialogue.
The biggest problem I had with REAL STEAL is it just never won me over. It never truly drew me into its story, and I never really connected to its characters.
First off, let’s start with the story, which is so based on ROCKY I knew exactly where the boxing scenes were going and how this one was going to end.
LS: Yeah, I saw the ending coming a mile away. Two miles.
MA: Screenwriter John Gatins borrowed too heavily from the ROCKY movies, there’s no doubt about it. If they decide to make a sequel, all you will need to do is watch ROCKY II (1979) and you’ll be able to figure out how that one is going to end.
LS: IF they decide to make a sequel? You’re kidding me, right? This one has “SEQUEL” written all over it.
MA: Sure, I exaggerate somewhat here…..
LS: Not much.
MA: ….but as I sat in the theater watching this movie, watching the robot Atom win these bouts as an underdog, I couldn’t help but think, I’ve seen this story before, all the way up to his having no business being in the same ring with the champion, yet he gets his chance, and as in ROCKY, it’s not so much about winning, it’s about surviving, getting back up when you’re hit, proving you can stay in the ring with the champion. Seen it all before. And as much as I like Hugh Jackman, in a movie like this, he’s no Sylvester Stallone. He doesn’t have the charisma or likeability that Stallone had in the ROCKY movies.
LS: Some surprises and variations on the ROCKY plotline would have been nice.
And just for the record, if we’re talking boxing movies, I’d have to say RAGING BULL (1980) still blows them all away.
MA: The other thing about the screenplay is it never really gets down to the nitty gritty. The fights are all won too easily when they shouldn’t be. Sure, I enjoyed the fight scenes, but I enjoyed them because of the visuals, not the story. The outcome of these bouts are never in doubt, which I found boring.
As I said before, the characters Charlie and Bailey share no onscreen chemistry, and a lot of this is because we don’t ever really get to see these two in a relationship. She says she likes him, and he spends time with her, so we’re supposed to accept that he likes her, but he seems to be more interested in how she can help him build robots. Not exactly the building blocks of a stable relationship.
The father and son relationship is OK, but it’s way too syrupy sweet for my tastes.
And while I liked the look of the robots, they don ‘t have enough personality. Atom should have been an extremely memorable character. He’s not. You mentioned those scenes where he shows that there could be more going on inside his head, but these moments are never exploited.
REAL STEEL also lacks a serious villain. You mention Kevin Durand as the villainous Ricky, and he’s okay, but he’s really just a supporting character in this movie. The main villain, the champion robot, we don’t even see him in action in the ring until the climactic final fight of the movie. How can we get psyched for the huge bout against the champion when we haven’t even seen him?
And Zeus’s “handlers,” Karl Yune and partner Farra Lemkova, could have been played by mannequins. I didn’t really feel as if I knew these people at all. They just stand around looking ruthless. They didn’t do jack in the movie.
I think director Shawn Levy, who’s directed a bunch of comedies, might want to stick with comedies. The action/boxing scenes here are adequate, but they really aren’t all that memorable.
That being said, I did enjoy the boxing scenes, mostly because of the way they looked and not so much because of what happens in them, and I did enjoy the robots, but I wasn’t really wowed by either. I also thought all the characters in this movie, with the exception of young Max, were flat and uninteresting, and Max suffered from too much of the “cutesies” to be really likeable.
REAL STEEL was fairly entertaining. I’ve seen better, and I’ve seen worse. In spite of the fact that it’s rated PG-13, I couldn’t help but think that it was better suited for younger audiences, say 12 and under. For the rest of us, I thought it was like eating sweetened kids’ cereal for breakfast. It’s colorful, and it looks and sounds good at the time, but after a few bites, it becomes apparent that it’s way too sugary sweet to satisfy.
LS: I love sugary kids’ cereals! (holds up a box of FRUITY PEBBLES). And what about the product placement in this movie? There’s a whole scene that’s pretty much a commercial for Dr. Pepper!
MA: You said it. The only thing missing from that scene was Atom holding a can of Dr. Pepper in his robot hand!
All in all, I give REAL STEEL two knives.
LS; I guess I liked it a little better than you did. I give it two and a half knives. But I agree, if I was 12 years old, I probably would have loved this movie. Luckily, my mental age is a few years older than that.
MA: Wow, I can’t believe you liked this movie. Here I was expecting you to give it 0 knives, and you end up liking it more than I did. Who would have thought?
But for boxing movie entertainment, I’d much rather watch the ROCKY movies.
ROCKY: Gee, thanks. I appreciate you saying that. It’s a nice thing to say.
MA: Well, it’s true.
(LS’s giant black metal robot strikes and knocks the head off MA’s giant golden robot.)
LS: I’ve knocked your block off, sucker!
MA: Hey, wait a minute! I wasn’t even looking! I was talking to ROCKY.
LS: That’s your problem, not mine. It’s not my fault you can’t do two things at once. You lose buddy. And that means you owe me a case of beer.
MA: Some fighter you are. Hitting a guy when he’s not looking.
LS: Is there a better time to hit someone?
MA: You’re philosophy of life never ceases to amaze me.
How about a rematch? Double or nothing?
LS: Hmm, Let’s see. (counts on his fingers) Two cases are better than one. You’re on!
MA: Let me just replace my robot’s head, and we’ll have at it. Okay, folks, that’s it for now. We’ll see you next week with a review of another new movie.
LS: Hurry up and fix your robot. I’m thirsty!
© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives REAL STEEL ~ two knives
L.L. Soares gives REAL STEEL ~ two and a half knives