Friday, 6 January 2012

Film Review: Real Steel

Sometime in the not too distant future when human boxing has been replaced with robots, drifter and former pugilist Charlie Kenton (Jackman) struggles to make a living sending metal men into the ring to duke it out. Deep in debt and with loan sharks not far behind him, Charlie's life is thrown into further disarray when he must take on the parental responsibility of the 11-year old son he never wanted, Max (Goyo). Salvaging a second-gen training robot from a scrap heap, the two bond when they embark on a rust-to-riches tale via the exciting world of robot boxing.

Featuring overwrought use of overused devices such as a deadbeat main character finding redemption, a doe-eyed child to facilitate said redemption while throwing in Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots(tm) for good measure, you might be forgiven for thinking that Real Steel is a shameless gimmick created to make a quick buck. It doesn't start well either. We are introduced to a vacuous vessel of a man who takes bets pitting his rusty robot against raging bulls in a scene which will have animal rights activists up in arms. Indeed at least initially Real Steel does nothing to win its audience over, its main character so unlikable in his one-dimensionally fixation on self-gain that he verges on the precipice of a caricature. And yet it manages to pick itself up from the brink and give a roaring comeback by the third act, if not in a highly predictable manner for an underdog 'sports' movie.

This is in large part due to Dakota Goyo, an annoyingly conveniently precocious boy able to tug at Charlie's heartstrings in a way which enables our wayward hero to succumb to his inner Dad and become an affable success story. However, you won't be able to shake the feeling that all this feels rather hackneyed. As much as Real Steel tries to use emotion to effect, it's ironically done in a conventionally robotic fashion. While Max is the film's pivot, there's still a sense he's there more for his 'cheek-pinching' appeal than as a well-rounded character. Likewise there's a banal love plot featuring Lost's Evangeline Lilly who adds nothing to proceedings other than to gush tears any time she's onscreen. In a sense the emotive torque in Real Steel resembles something you might expect if you were to hot-wire a robot with emotions; preprogrammed, perfectly timed and ultimately insincere. Indeed, it's forcibly induced tear jerking moments are almost as shameless as its product placement. But while this is obviously transparent there is still an enjoyable chemistry between what are otherwise likeable characters. While you'll groan at the unoriginality of the sentimental techniques and plot lines, Real Steel is still slickly effusive in an unpretentious manner.

Ironically it is Atom, the robot Max saves from the junkyard, which proves to be the most endearing character. There's definitely a discernable pizzazz which makes Atom more than just a robot, his glowing neon-blue eyes alluding to something resembling a heart of sorts. Certainly he appears more alive than the soulless machinations he fights in the ring. Even the people in the film treat Atom more like a real human being than they do each other as Charlie tries to 'motivate' the little bot that could by shouting "I don't know if you can hear me in there?!" when the robot loses his voice command function in a fight. Atom is further anthropomorphised through having a unique feature called 'shadow mode' where the bot mimics the moves of its trainer. As Atom cocks his head and looks at his trainers with seeming bemusement an enjoyable little mystery begins to play out through the film as we get the impression there's more to this plucky little robot than he's letting on.

Yet while 'shadow mode' differentiates Atom from the other robots, it only begs the question as to why only this antiquated 'second generation' model seems to have this feature. Moreover, if robot boxing has replaced human boxing, one might have imagined that those humans forced from the ring might have chosen to live out their fighting career through robots, thus making 'shadow mode' and essential design feature. Indeed, for a film set in the future there's no real sense of it other than the robots, the intermittent crystalline displays and the meretricious X-Box 720 product placement. Instead it celebrates traditional American heartland values like that of Charlie's blue collar truck driver trekking crosscountry just to make a living.

To say Real Steel is Rocky with robots which look like Transformers wouldn't necessarily be an oversimplification. Fortunately while more contrived than Rocky at least these boxing bots have more context than Transformer's traditional Bayhem. And the carnage is impressive to boot, Sugar Ray Leonard helping choreograph the mayhem of hulking steel giants clanging into one another. The fact that they tend to move like real fighters injects a certain amount of personality into the nuts and bolts which ironically gives more of an emotional pay off than any of the human characters.

This is typified in Real Steel's villains, a stinking rich Russian heiress (Fonda) and a too-cool-for-school Japanese robot designer (Yune) who have built a consistently evolving behemoth of a robot named Zeus. Why the villains had to be foreign stereotypes is anyone's guess, but it reeks of the two paranoias which gripped America during the eighties. The first the Russians on account of the Cold War. The second, the Japanese on account their investors were snapping up real estate and companies in a manner which struck the fear of God into Americans that they would soon become a vassal to Tokyo's super-ultra-unstoppable economy. Certainly these themes are no stranger to American movie history; the unstoppable Siberian Express of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV and the Japanese robot ninjas in RoboCop 3 just for starters.

And yet despite its faults Real Steel isn't nearly as bad as it might sound. The comparisons to Rocky and Transformers are unavoidable, and while it essentially boils down to yet another film about underdogs overcoming the odds it is still shamefully enjoyable. It's big, loud, kinda dumb and more than rusty around the edges. In fact, Real Steel is perfectly encapsulated in its dishevelled, pugilistic robot, Atom; resilient to beat downs and just keeps on going. Yes it's derivative and there are going to be those who resent its sentimental hokum, but it is likeable in equal measure. This bot bout has to go down to a split decision.