REAL STEEL, 2011
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Kevin Durand, Anthony Mackie, Hope Davis, Phil LaMarr, James Rebhorn, Dakota Goyo, Olga Fonda
A future-set story where robot boxing is a popular sport and centered on a struggling promoter (Jackman) who thinks he's found a champion in a discarded robot. During his hopeful rise to the top, he also discovers he has an 11-year-old son who wants to know his father.
It shouldn't be any surprise to even an occasional film viewer that big budget spectacle movies are made primarily for a young male audience, which means they tend to focus on the superficial over the substantive. There's nothing wrong with that as far as entertainment goes, but it does tend to bring a host of problems with it because so many producers and filmmakers know their audience will forgive many problems as long they are given something super-incredibly-awesome. "Transformer" films practically live on that after all. The problem is it is an extremely thin line between being cool and being stupid. "Real Steel" dances so far over that line it can't even see it any more.
The year is 2020 and boxing and other traditional combat sports can no longer provide the kind of spectacle and violence crowds require anymore so the entertainment world has taken the next logical step. Building actual walking, fighting Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robots to do be animatronics gladiators.
"Real Steel" is an incredibly ludicrous premise for an action film or sports move or whatever it is "Real Steel" actually is, but so are most high-concept films. Any idea, no matter how silly, can be made to work if told in the right tone and matched with the right characters. Fortunately for me "Real Steel" doesn't even bother doing that, instead going the far more entertaining (for a critic) route of combining the most clichéd tropes of the sports film with the most clichéd tropes of the father-son road movie. The result is a fantastic mess of a film that makes a valiant effort at being the worst film of the year so far.
There are number of probably unsolvable problems with "Real Steel" which are easily visible at the script stage. Number one above anything else is that it wants to be sports movie but it has no athlete. An important part of the premise is that human fighters, the kind Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) used to be before robots came around, have been replaced. As result Charlie and guys like him have been forced to become robot boxing controllers and promoters, sitting on the sidelines of the ring – completely physically removed from the action – and trying to look involved as they remote pilot their robots to glory.
Or in Charlie's case, to loss after loss after loss. That's because Charlie is a natural born fuck up who's long-term planning ability is so short even fruit flies wonder what's wrong with him. All he cares about is getting another fighting robot no matter the cost so he can lose another fight through incredibly poor decision making. If that means signing over his custody of his son (who he has admittedly never met) in exchange for $100,000 then so be it.
So we've got an unlikeable protagonist whose major part of any action sequence is to stand on the sidelines and hit buttons or yell commands into a microphone. He is not actually competing in anything, removing all drama from the competition side of the film (despite that being where all drama is placed in a sports film) and director Shawn Levy ("Night at the Museum") has conscientiously decided not to replace him with anything. The film goes back and forth repeatedly while trying to decide whether the robots are the focus or the people controlling them are, ultimately trying to pick both and failing at picking either.
Adding onto its complete failure as a sports movie is the incredibly tired father-son bonding plot which is supposed to be the heart of the film. Unfortunately it has to deal with an annoying child character who is so uber-competent at whatever he does it's a wonder why he needs Charlie or anyone else. Worse than that, he is frequently competing with Charlie over who is the actual main protagonist, and the robot they build as well, that you never actually get a main character to hang your hat on.
After Charlie looses his last robot he and son Max go scavenging and find an old sparring robot. A robot built to take a lot of damage and learn from its opponents. With some quick hotwiring from Max, the group is ready to return to the ring as they head towards an actual slot in the WRL, the world's largest robot fighting group.
A competently made action film can just about get away with these sorts of lazy, cliché ridden choices, depending on the viewer. A ridiculously stupid action film can't because it just makes the stupid parts more obvious. The result is something crying out to be shown on "Mystery Science Theater 3000" not 3000 theathers.
In fact, "Real Steel" is so bad I honestly can't decide whether it is actually a stealth parody or not. Jackman and most of his other cast members play the film so dreadfully straight it seems like it could be real, but that delivery is ironically also what makes it so funny. Jackman is trying his level best, but he's doing so while talking about fighting 'bots and not much else.
If it's straight it's one of the worst film of the last few months. But if "Real Steel" is the real deal it may be one of the greatest jokes about the nature of Hollywood's choices in several years. Even if "Real Steel" isn't real it still may be one of the greatest jokes about the nature of Hollywood's choices.
The actors try their best and much of the production design is first rate, from photography to sets, but there's no fixing this turkey. Cliché's by themselves can be good. Cliché's with other cliché's are almost certain to be bad. "Real Steel" is a good example of that.
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