by Mel Valentin
If, as the saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum, then so does Hollywood, or more specifically, Hollywood executives, can’t get enough of fighting, battling, semi-sentient robots. Neither, apparently, can movie audiences. With the "Transformers" franchise on hiatus (Michael Bay has promised not to return for a fourth, as yet unscheduled entry), there’s no better time (or so the thinking goes) for another robot-themed film. Wrap said robot-themed film in an extra-sugary coating of Spielbergian schmaltz the result looks and sounds like "Real Steel" starring an American-accented Hugh Jackman, temporarily leaving Wolverine’s facial hair if not the gun show behind (wearing tight tees onscreen are part of Jackman’s contracts), and directed by studio-favorite Shawn Levy ("Date Night," "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," "Night at the Museum," "Cheaper by the Dozen").Real Steel centers on the personal redemption story of Charlie Kenton (Jackman), a former boxer turned robot-boxer promoter. Continually down on his luck with huge debts to prove it, Kenton loses a robot vs. bull match, then, after acquiring 50Gs for “selling” the son he abandoned a decade earlier, Max (Dakota Goyo), to his son’s aunt, Debra (Hope Davis), and Debra’s wealthy husband, Marvin (James Rebhorn), losing his newly purchased robot, “Noisy Boy,” in an unsanctioned robot match. With a pocketful of clichés and a surly, unhappy son to impress, Kenton does what any down-on-his-luck robot-boxing promoter would do: He breaks into a robot junkyard for spare robot parts. There, Max discovers an abandoned (like Max), dirt-and-grime-covered, early gen, sparring robot, Atom.
"Nothing says father-son bonding like robot-on-robot violence."
Where Charlie sees junk, a broken down robot without a future in our out of the boxing ring (like Charlie), Charlie sees a future filled with Atom, a smaller, cruder, less sophisticated robot by any internal or external measure, beating opponents for increasingly larger purses, thereby getting Charlie out of debt and financially solvent again and Max the loving, caring father he never had. Liberally, or, to be more accurate, shamelessly borrowing huge chunks of plot from Rocky (little known underdog gets improbable shot at the title), Over The Top (the father-son bonding over a competitive sport), and, of course, Transformers-inspired robots (or Rock’em, Sock’em robots), Real Steel then follows Charlie, Max, and Atom as they face several, increasingly advanced opponents, up to and including, the current World Robot League (WRB) champion, the Mighty Zeus. Zeus’ learning software comes courtesy of a brilliant programmer, Tak Mashido (Karl Yune), and Mashido’s deep-pcoketed Russian backer Farra Lemkova (Olga Fonda), a choice that can only remind Rocky fans of Rocky IV.
Real Steel unsurprisingly includes the obligatory romantic interest, Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly), for Charlie. The daughter of Charlie’s one-time boxing trainer and the owner of a perpetually empty, soon-to-be-foreclosed-on boxing gym, Bailey also serves as Charlie’s cheerleader and, when the script demands it, moral compass, reminding Charlie that, despite a decade+ filled with poor decision-making fueled by his egotism and self-centeredness, he’s still, despite evidence to the contrary, a good man. All he needs is one good or semi-good robot and the love of his estranged son and he’s golden. Charlie also has to avoid the men attempting to collect on his sizable debts, including Ricky (Kevin Durand), a one-time, heavyweight boxing champion Charlie almost beat more than a decade earlier.
Despite the prodigious amounts of screen time dedicated to fathers bonding with sons and sons bonding with fathers, Real Steel still manages to squeeze in equally prodigious amounts of robot-on-robot violence, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before in the Transformers films, just on a significantly reduced scale and inside a boxing ring as opposed to an entire city block (or entire city for that matter). To be fair (and we should be, if nothing else, fair), the robots, a seamless combination of practical effects (animatronics) and visual effects (CGI) are never less than impressive. To continue being fair (and honest too), the robot-on-robot boxing matches consistently deliver visceral thrills and, on one or two occasions, even on emotional thrills as well.But moviegoers can live on robot-on-robot violence or father-son bonding alone. In practically every other respect, "Real Steel" fails to deliver anything we haven’t seen before and/or better. Then again, "Real Steel" never aspired to be anything more than a family-friendly film. After all, what boy and/or girl (fewer, but presumably still present) hasn’t secretly wished for a hulking, eight foot-tall, sparring robot of their own? For that matter, one or two adults (or more) might still harbor that secret desire. They just won’t admit it themselves or their children. Their children, however, will give them all the excuse they’ll need to see "Real Steel" on the big screen. Everyone else can expect competently made, if only superficially, momentarily engaging, instantly forgettable entertainment.
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originally posted: 10/07/11 03:11:56