Well, our next milestone is fast approaching. In just two more short days, I’ll be hitting number 200 of the year. After that it will only be 166 more until I can have a day off!
Evangeline’s hotter than Burgess Meredith
In the year 2020 boxing will be a little different than it is now; human fighters will be replaced by robots remote-controlled from outside the ring. The old boxers will be out of a job. One old fighter named Charlie Kenton, who has been scraping a living running his own bot on the underground circuit suddenly finds himself with an eleven-year-old son after the boy’s mother passes away. With a few months before his aunt can take custody, young Max goes to stay with Charlie. Initially clueless about each other, the two bond over Atom: an old sparring bot they find and start taking to the fights. As their relationship develops, so does Atom’s record, leading the Kenton’s all the way to a shot at the title.
Quick question: have you seen Rocky? Of course you have. Another quick question: have you seen Robot Wars? If you are not male, single and aged between 18 and 40, go look it up. I’ll wait. Ok, glad to have you back. If you take those two examples and add a dash of Richard Matheson (admittedly at a near-homeopathic level, but still…) then you will have Real Steel: the story of a man, his son and his robot boxer. And his gym-owning girlfriend who is entirely too attractive to exist in the real world.
Real Steel is very loosely adapted from Matheson’s short story “Steel”, which was made into an episode of The Twilight Zome back in 1963. In that story, the robot boxers were actually androids, indistinguishable from humans as opposed to the 8ft-tall Metal Mickeys of the movie. The trainer character in the show was played by Lee Marvin, and in the end he got in the ring himself because his bot was too damaged to fight. That episode has the distinction of being followed by another Matheson story and arguably the most famous Twilight Zone episode ever: Nightmare At 20,000 Feet. Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven’s story and John Gatins’ final screenplay only really take two words from Matheson’s story (“robot” and “boxers”) and graft that to a fairly standard family drama/sports movie frame. But here’s the thing: it actually works.
The writers have made a few interesting choices when it comes to the characters, mainly when it comes to Charlie. For the entire first half of the film he is a definitively unlikeable person. He is impulsive, selfish, self-destructive, petulant; basically, he’s the child. It is eleven-year-old Max who is the thoughtful and mature one, the one who manages to negotiate better money for fighting Atom than the first offers Charlie would settle for. It is Max who insists Atom can be a contender even while Charlie is dismissing the idea as a waste of time and energy. The change in Charlie as the film goes on is handled with a dexterity that belies the movie’s big budget summer blockbuster status.
Hugh Jackman manages to imply some depth to a superficially shallow person. Here is a fighter who was just coming to the fore when the robot revolution of his sport took place. He wasn’t a great fighter by any means, but he was close to getting his shot and it never came. His development as a person comes about when Max brings Atom into his life. The robot mirrors his own boxing career: both were basically sparring partners. Charlie was the type who could take all the punishment anyone could dish out to him but it was only when he was taken in by the trainer Joe Tallet that he learned how to fight smart. Atom was actually built as a sparring bot. He is almost indestructible but isn’t much offensively. Charlie takes on the role Joe played for him by training Atom, and taking the robot to the big fight he never made it to himself. This is corny as hell in places of course, but a sarcastic sense of humour and some bone-crunching fights keep the movie from sinking too far into that particular pit.
Director Shawn Levy comes to this film with two secret weapons. If you really enjoy Real Steel it will be because of one or both of these. The first is the robots themselves. Without a cartoon or a comic book or a toy line to remain faithful, Levy and his design crew can go nuts with the robots Each comes out as a unique and interesting design but it is how they are used that makes them work. Inspired by producer Steven Spielberg, Levy has built all the robots as on-set animatronic puppets. It is primarily the interaction this choice accomplishes that sells the conceit of the film. The fact that the robots are being controlled by puppeteers – actors – instead of animators gives them more personality. Working against something that is actually on set with them also brings out better and more consistent performances from the human actors. CG is still used for the fights as well as some other shots, but it is used sparingly and advancements wth the tech in recent years make the CG and on-set robot almost indistinguishable.
Levy’s second secret weapon is young Dakota Goyo as Max. Max is a fiercely intelligent and forceful kid who takes no shit from anyone. As the movie goes on and Charlie starts to grow up through having Max around, so Max starts becoming more impulsive and reckless, to the point where the two characters almost meet in the middle, more alike than either of their earlier selves would have liked to admit. Goyo completely sells the development of this character. He is probably most easily recognised from his 5 minutes as young Thor, but he deserves to go on to much bigger and better things after this.
Real Steel is a small family story dressing up in his blockbuster big brother’s suit. Despite all the effects and product placement (don’t get me started on the product placement) and vague sci-fi trappings, the supporting cast reflects its more grounded intents. There are only a handful of key support roles but they are all interesting actors. Jackman is reunited with his Wolverine co-star Kevin Durand as Ricky, a fight promoter Charlie skips out on at the start after losing a fight against a bull. He is the closest the flick has to a baddie and he is clearly revelling in his work. Anthony Mackie is his usual cool, calm and collected self as a rival promoter and fight club owner and friend of Charlie. Seriously, when is this guy going to get a proper leading role? And then there is Evangeline Lilly, fresh from her mysterious island as Bailey Tallet, who inherited the gym from her father when he died. Sticking with the Rocky comparisons for a sec, if Charlie is Atom’s Mickey, Bailey is Charlie’s. Even if Charlie doesn’t fight any more himself, he still needs to be trained, cajoled, encouraged and it is Bailey who fulfills this function for him. She looks so much better than Burgess Meredith in cut-offs too.
The production design on display here deserves a few words as well. The film is set just far enough into the future so that we can buy the robot boxer element, but not enough to go full-sci-fi. Some of the exteriors have had a few tweaks here and there on the skyline, but the film is actually more rural in its settings. The county fair circuit Charlie is in at the start helps to evoke an old-school timelessness that surprisingly doesn’t jar with the appearance of a nine-foot robot being beat to shit by a rodeo bull.
I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this film, but I was pleasantly surprised. Even if it does fall out of the sports movie tree and hit every story point on the way down, Real Steel is two hours of solid entertainment that can everyone can appreciate.
I have not seen “Rocky”. I’ve seen pieces of it but never the full movie. And I found “Real Steel” incredibly boring…but I also don’t like boxing and sports so that could’ve had a lot to do with it. 😉 Nice review!
You’ve never seen Rocky either?! What is the world coming to? 🙂
I’m not a boxing fan – I don’t follow any sports really – but I still like a lot of sports movies.
Lol, it’s a sad sad world. 😉 Yeah, sports movies just don’t do it for me really.
I’ve…never…seen…Rocky…and am unfamiliar with Robot Wars, and I’m a male between 18-40. I am, however, a huge Twilight Zone geek.
You’ve… never… seen… Rocky? You must be the only one! You should do a Rocky Week.
Cracking review as always. I friggin’ loved this film. I saw it a few weeks ago purely by chance but it was one of the best movie experiences I had had for a long time, just so much fun. The robot wars analogy made me chuckle, give them an unlimited budget (and some booze) then this is probably what they would have come up with. Keep up the good work, you are on the downward slope now.