I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Real Steel

tn_realsteeelHere’s a not-perfect but surprisingly enjoyable family sports robots drama from the visionary director of, to be frankly honest, CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN (remake) and THE PINK PANTHER (remake) and a bunch of other shit like that. Obviously the title is a cheap stunt, they’re trying to make you think Shaquille O’Neal is in it, so please spread the word that that’s not the case. It’s also not officially based on the beloved intellectual property Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, even though it’s about boxing robots. It’s credited as being partly based on a Richard Matheson short story called “Steel” (also turned into a Twilight Zone episode starring Lee Marvin), but I say it’s suspiciously similar to Menahem Golan’s OVER THE TOP.

Hugh Jackman plays Charlie, an ex-boxer in the near future who owes a bunch of people money and travels around with a beat-up robot in a truck that he remote controls to fight bulls at rodeos and shit like that. He’s one of those charming underdogs that used to be the greatest but now he’s washed up and behind on rent and he makes bets with money he doesn’t have and gets himself into trouble but you love him anyway. Oh yeah, also he’s a deadbeat dad who doesn’t even know how old his son Max (Dakota Goyo) is. When he finds out the kid’s mom died and her sister (Hope Davis) wants custody of the kid he makes a deal to get paid off for it. He sells his son, basically. What a scamp.

But first he has to watch the kid for about a month. The kid who plays Max looks kinda like little Anakin Skywalker, but his acting is a little more natural. Of course he (correctly) hates his dad at first, but he knows alot about robot boxing so he gets involved in his dad’s work. They find a shitty old practice dummy robot in a junkyard that the kid insists on pimping out and grooming into a champion. I won’t give away if it works or not. I doubt they have much success with it, I mean it’s so old and nobody believes it has a chance.

mp_realsteelOf course the fun of the movie is that it has all the sports movie cliches, but with added robot. There’s the underground unsanctioned bouts where they earn cash and build a reputation, the unscrupulous former rival that comes after him, the exhausted woman who puts up with his shit and believes in him, the unbeatable champ with all the resources in the world (the Ivan Drago of robots), the commentators who help turn the underdog into a folk hero, and I guess the final bout is based on the one in ROCKY. There are training montages (kid teaches robot how to punch) although they are sorely lacking in Survivor-style inspiration rock.

I thought the robots looked dumb in the trailer, but I liked them in the actual movie. They look just as real as the ones in the TRANSFORMERSes, but without all the ten thousand useless doodads all over them, so they are actually something the human eye enjoys looking at. They’re shaped like humans and have discernible arms, legs and heads. The main robot, Atom, has an appealingly simple face: basically a fencing mask with two lights behind it for eyes, and a dent that implies a smile.

One thing that’s not what I expected: the robots are just remote control toys, basically. They’re not alive, it’s the programming and commands of their owners that makes them good in the ring. So when they get literally torn apart it’s only as sad as wrecking your car. There is a weird thing where Max seems to think the robot is alive, but it doesn’t really come up again. Which is kind of nice. It sticks to the relationship between the father and son and doesn’t turn into an E.T. ripoff or anything.

That relationship is the heart of the movie but also the movie’s biggest weakness. Obviously Charlie is supposed to be a screwup and you’re supposed to root for him to straighten his life out, but I feel like he’s way more of a scumbag than the movie acknowledges. After he shirks his responsibility as a father (“I just freaked out” he explains) and then sells his own son, he takes him trespassing in a junkyard. When the kid falls into a huge pit and only survives through sheer luck Dad makes sure he’s alright, hugs him, then chastises him ’cause he told him to be careful about standing on a cliff. But you’re the one that fucking took your kid next to a cliff, asshole.

Also, not to get into an animal rights debate, but I feel like you shouldn’t build a huge robot and use it to punch a bull in the head. That seems cruel. What the fuck did the bull do?

But at the end they leave things up in the air, they don’t say he gets to keep the kid or anything, so I appreciate that. It draws the line at a certain amount of bullshit.

I have a hard time buying this sport. If you’re gonna build robots and have them fight why limit them to boxing rules? It seems like they should take advantage of not being human, they should be allowed to do way more damage on each other, and they should be in a setting where they can fly around and smash through things and shit. They even talk about how the sport evolved because people wanted more and more violence and the humans couldn’t do it anymore. I decided to read it as a commentary on how these sorts of things get compromised over time, like how the original “there are no rules!” UFC tournaments slowly evolved into sanctioned matches with weight classes and all kinds of rules. That would be kinda cool if that was what it was saying, because it’s the opposite of the usual futuristic sports (Rollerball, Death Races, The Running Man, etc.) that are all about maximum violence.

There are problems with it, but it’s better made and more enjoyable than the ol’ auteur theory had me expecting. I guess that’s why it’s only a theory. There are enough good choices made for REAL STEEL to satisfy those of us who like Hugh Jackman playing Clint Eastwood while robots punch each other.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012 at 3:04 am and is filed under Family, Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit, Sport. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

27 Responses to “Real Steel”

  1. so what you’re saying is, Real Steel in the real deal?

    I had a feeling that this was probably better than it’s reputation, but I don’t really have a strong desire to see it, maybe one day I’ll rent it or something….

  2. Didn’t like this very much. Sure it’s harmless and the robot fights are kinda cool, but in between it’s just sappy cliched bullshit. I actually fast forwarded through some of these scenes (the junkyard bit for example) because I already knew what was gonna happen from the trailer anyway. Also, the thing about the kid dancing with his robot made me cringe. No kid that age would ever dance like that, it was obviously choreographed by a professional.

    I did get into the fight at the very end though, I have to admit they executed the same old cliches pretty well. Really liked that one slow-mo shot of Jackman punching with the robot mimicking him in the ring.

  3. Wait, it seems like I’m contradicting myself. What I meant was, I didn’t like the cliches about the way Jackman is a scumbag but has a good heart and redeems himself to his son and all that sappy crap, but I DID like the Rocky type cliches where at first it seems like they don’t stand a chance in the final fight, then they start to fight back, come close to defeat again but then come back again because of a special move or strategy that you knew was going to come into play all along (in this case, Jackman boxing himself).

    Hope that clarifies it.

  4. You’re now the third person in the last ten days to tell me this is a lot more enjoyable than they expected. Apologies to my mates, but I put a lot more stock by your opinion. Think I’ll definitely need to give it a look.

  5. I’m guessing that there is no MF Doom on the REAL STEEL soundtrack, though. Sigh.

  6. Me and CJ talked about it, but quite honestly….a MUTANT LEAGUE FOOTBALL movie would be raping cliches as much as REAL STEEL apparently does, except with the underdog football picture instead of boxing movie.

  7. Yeah, but it would be at least R-Rated! (Or hard PG-13 for dark humored Mutant violence)

  8. I actually liked the relationship between Hugh and the kid. Hugh’s kind of a scumbag and the kid is kind of a sassy punk. They deserve each other!

    I thought most of the robots looked good. Unfortunately, the least convincing robot is the one that’s supposed to be THE BEST and THE MOST INTIMIDATING.

  9. CJ – can we get a PG-13 with land mines?

    *cue broadcast booth*

    “He’s got the ball, he’s running, he might make first down….KABOOM he doesn’t! He wasn’t even close.”
    “I believe he was a yard short.”
    “Definately a foot short now.”

    HAR HAR HAR!

  10. Depends on if the land mine explosion is on screen and how much blood is spilled, I guess. Maybe also what color the blood is.
    Fuck that, make that R.

  11. Yeah, this one was definitely better than it looked. Lots of heart, pretty good world-building (not as smart or thorough as Robocop, but this is one of the best realized “near future” movies I can remember), the kid’s not annoying, Jackman really sells it as he always does.

    Only problem really was the end SPOILERS (with the shadow function thing) was totally given away in all the trailers and commercials. I actually THOUGHT the robot was going to shadow his boxing movements the whole movie, not that it would end up being the last minute thing they use to win at the end.

    And a special word needs to be said about the action scenes – clear, well-shot, lots of high-impact violence but not as sadistic as the face-ripping shit from the Transformers movies. I actually feel this is what a lower-budgeted Transformers Reboot would look like.

  12. Neal2zod – the kid is not annoying? He’s a smug little asshole who likes to dance with robots. There is nothing NOT annoying about that kid.

  13. Not seen it, but I do appreciate that to promote the movie, Jackman guest hosted an episode of Monday Night Raw, where he legit fractured wrestler Dolph Ziggler’s jaw with a punch.

  14. Every cliche in the book, but still pretty enjoyable. Another plane movie. Not as good as Rocky, not as eye-gougingly bad as Wolverine. I do wonder though how the little kid managed to dig out what had to be a half ton of robot and get it into a wagon. The kid has to have a power to weight ratio of roughly 9.8 Dwayne “The Rock” Johnsons, or 2.7 on the Michael Jai White scale.

  15. Stu – I have doubts about the suppoesd severity of that jaw injury, but none the less Ziggler sold that punch like a boss.

    Really the best seller in that company today IMO.

    (I would be shocked if he doesn’t get a top title run sometime this year.)

  16. This movie is wack. I wanted to like it, but the stupidity & massive nonsensical plot holes kept me at a distance. Normally, that’s not a big problem for me, not a dealbreaker anyway, but in this case the characters are stupid & backwards & annoying, too, so that leaves very little to redeem the movie. Luckily, that little aspect is robots fighting & dancing, so it’s not all a waste of time.

    For some reason, I can accept superhuman qualities & ridiculous redemption stories & archetype-cliche characters in other movies, but this one was too over the top with its laziness. It’s saturated with laziness to the point of intellectual emptiness.

    I don’t understand the premise. I mean, I get it, it’s not a film with grandiose literary aspirations; I don’t have to prove to you people that I love some “great trash” and non-Shakespeare action. What I don’t get is what makes Hugh Jackman & the kid special. All they do is handle a joystick & some software. It seems like anyone with a few thousand dollars and a spare weekend to train could easily surpass their robo-fighting abilities.

    And Jackman’s a complete loser. He doesn’t practice. He doesn’t pay attention during the fights. He showboats before he’s won his money. He’s a horrible father. He’s bad with finances. He’s bad with transportation. He’s bad with equipment storage & upkeep.

    The characters who the movie wants us to believe are the bad guys are actually much better role models for REAL STEEL’s younger viewers. They’re successful because they work hard and do what’s necessary to win. They have a superior product. They practice & refine their skills. They don’t flaunt their #1 spot, yet they occupy it with confidence & grace.

    Also the physical mechanics of the “shadow-boxing” don’t make sense. Does Jackman not have to be *in front of* the robot in order to get the desired result?

  17. chicken situation

    February 22nd, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    the bit i really appreciated in this movie was that it was suggested that atom might actually be thinking inside his metal head in some dim way. there was the scene in the robot locker room when wolverine and anakin get called up to meet the bad guy team leaving atom alone, and it ended with a long, slow push-in of atom seemingly looking at himself in the mirror, his head kind of cocked. very nice moment, and it comes up a few times, usually based on his connection the the boy. and the best bit is that they don’t answer the question one way or another. it’s like blade runner before ridley scott was forced at gunpoint to say out loud that deckard is a replicant. (spoiler)

  18. I also caught this on the high definition video disc having heard all the “it’s better than you think” talk, and it does move steadily and work despite itself. But had I seen it for work in theatrical release I would still not have been kind to it.

    Totally agree on the bull thing. That’s barbaric. How is torturing an animal ok? Why didn’t that get more controversy when this came out?

    Still I wouldn’t say getting to the end without too much trouble makes it enjoyable. I quite liked NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN so I know Levy has some creative imagination. Wanna see the ZONE version tho.

  19. Fred – The Twilight Zone version is on Netflix Instant and is excellent. Won’t get into spoilers but it has the exact same plot I figured the movie would have when I heard the ridiculous premise. Once it was revealed while shooting that the robots were huge Transformers-esque, non-human looking robots, I knew they couldn’t go that route with the story. Again, don’t want to spoil too much, but would love to discuss it with you guys.

  20. I must concur with neal2zod on that TZ episode. Good shit.

    Though to be fair, I’ll give REAL STEEL a slight edge on at least one regard: if you’re gonna do robot boxing, why bother with humanoid androids, what’s the point? So I give the picture credit for trying to have some fun with the robot designs I guess. The episode is still much better, only because of Lee f’n Marvin.

  21. This was more enjoyable than it had any right to be.

    Mike A., are you sure you’re not just annoyed by kids? As far as kids in movies go this kid was alright.

    Seriously, this isn’t bad Saturday afternoon fair between a lunch date and getting ready to go out at night, if it’s on TBS or something.

    And, yeah, Ziggler is a boss. He’s easily in my Fave Five (1 DBry, 2 Cody Rhodes, 3 Dolph Ziggler, 4 Sheamus, 5 Hunico, 6 CM Punk when he’s not being a total dickwad).

  22. The kid is way better than other movie kids, that’s what helps so much. But that “more enjoyable than it had any right to be” hype is what gets me down. I don’t think it’s THAT forgivably silly or fun. It’s not torture to watch is all, but I still didn’t like it.

    Thanks for sparing the spoilers. I will watch the TZ. Wonder if I even have it on Blu-ray.

  23. “Hugh Jackman playing Clint Eastwood while robots punch each other.” I’m there.

  24. I watched this last night, and HATED it. There are zero redeeming characters in the film, everybody that ever shows up on screen just grates. I wanted to throw the kid off a tall building. Everything was telegraphed from a thousand miles away, including the whole ‘get the unscrupulous black guys to take care of the villain so hugh whiteman doesn’t have to get his hands dirty’. To my knowledge Hugh never even knows that the issue with Kevin Durand had been resolved. The robots looked cool, and watching them punch it up was fun, but Jesus did it not make up for every other second of the movie a robot was not beating ass onscreen. Dumb, dumb dumb dumb dummmmmmbbbb.

  25. I also didn’t like the Zeus design. I thought it could’ve been way scarier. The best robot was the one he fights at the Zoo with the junk pieces and sledgehammer arm (Metro) but they were all pretty good, believable boxy and heavy.

    I think this kid is a pretty good actor – when he’s begging his dad and saying “Pleeease” it’s a bit annoying and there are a couple over-sappy scenes, but for the most part I found their relationship believably spunky and natural. And this movie could’ve been WAY more sappy. They don’t even talk about the dead mother/why he left/becoming his custodial guardian. Not really. So much of that sappy shit is kept out of the way and I was grateful.

    Jackman’s whole loser attitude feels contrived sometimes, especially at the end when he doesn’t want to switch to shadow boxing. Why the reluctance?? I mean I thought he had supposedly “learned his lesson” and decided to finally “fight for Max.” The whole point of the Zeus fight was to “go down swinging,” so what gives?

    Anyway, that final round is the best part of the movie, with some good fights and decent acting in between. 3.5 stars. And I liked the bull scene.

  26. The trailer made me think of Over the Top, except with boxing robots instead of arm wrestling.

  27. I just caught it on Pay TV. It’s pretty much a Disney Channel Original Movie, but with better actors and production values. The only thing that I can really take away from that movie, is that Shawn Levy could be a capable action director. Let’s hope this movie his out-of-shitty-comedy-jail card.

Leave a Reply





XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <img src=""> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <b> <i> <strike> <em> <strong>