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Real Steel Film Review: Done Stealing Old Ideas, Now Onto Old Products
Who says 1980s television commercials aren't entertainment? Certainly not Hollywood. Case in point, their recent refusal to give work to original screenwriters and maybe spread the wealth by mashing together Heidi and the last Rocky film Rocky Balboa. Throw in a lot of robots beating the living snot out of one another ala Transformers, minus the Michael Baysplosions, and you've got Real Steel, a derivative take on just about every sports film out there with the plucky young go-getter who has faith and somehow manages to get a skilled but jaded and bitter ex-contender off his ass and back into the game.
Just to be clear, I am a boxing fan, so it was pretty much a given that I would watch this film. Also, for those who haven't heard, Real Steel is a film take on the old child's toy Rock'em Sock'em Robots. Two plastic robots set in a plastic ring punch one another with abandon until one gets its head knocked off, kinda like watching the Kardashians with the sort of ending I'd actually be rooting for. Supposedly this is based off of Richard Matheson's short story "Steel," but I see about as much similarity between the two as I do with any other film supposedly based off Matheson's work. I'm reasonably certain Matheson doesn't exist and it's just a name filmmakers use in hopes of saying their films are adaptations rather than having to admit something is a cheep send-off.
Avert your eyes, dear children and faint of heart, there are plenty of spoilers to be had here.
Story Summary. Possibly Longer Than Actual Script
Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) plays an ex-boxer in a day and age where people are no longer interested in seeing flesh and blood duke it out in the ring. Instead they use robots which rip one another apart by any means at their immediate disposal. Lots more carnage, much safer. So Charlie has been struggling to adapt by getting himself a robot and working with Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly), who is the daughter of Charlie's old trainer and current owner of a boxing gym with no customers due to the death of the sport. Charlie has the technical skill to be a top-rate contender, but his heart isn't in it. Using a controller to remotely manipulate a machine to beat the crap out of another machine isn't a sport. It's just a spectacle. So he's a bit of a drinker, depressive, a showboat when his robot's in the ring, and an utter douchebag besides.
The film starts with him and his bot at a county fair in someplace with a lot of cattle and grain. He's due to fight an 800 pound bull, but the fair's manager Ricky (Kevin Durand) lost a lot of money betting on a fight back when Charlie was boxing and instead makes him fight a bull about 2,000 pounds. Things go well until Charlie takes his eyes off the fight in order to do some grandstanding, at which point his bot is promptly gored. He doesn't get paid, he's broke, and then he learns that his ex-wife inTexashas just died.
Max Kenton (Dakota Goyo), is Charlie's son, and the two have had nothing to do with one another in the 11 years Max has been alive. Charlie shows up at the hearing where the judge is about to award custody to him, what with that being Texas state law, and informs the judge he wishes to give full custody to his ex-wife's sister, who married rich and really wants to care for Max.
Turns out there's going to be some time until the next hearing, so Charlie is stuck with Max in the meantime, and he's gotta see about making some dough in a downtown slum ring with a new bot he picked up for cheap. Luckily, the bot is in perfect condition, an ex-champ just back fromJapan, and Charlie is ready to head out until Max blackmails him into coming along.
Charlie's greed has him take on an opponent he knows nothing about using a bot he has no experience with. And he promptly gets his final investment beaten to scrap, so it's off to steal what parts he can from the junkyard in hopes of getting another one together.
There's some backstory where Charlie explains what happens to regular boxing, a few moments where Max establishes his character, and then an impromptu fall off a cliff only to be caught by the arm of a half-buried robot. Charlie wants to go, but Max sees it as an omen and takes the bot back to the gym. He gets it fixed up, finds it's named "Atom," and learns it's an early generation 2 model, smaller and lighter than those currently used. It has a shadow mode in which it apes what it sees, and was probably used as a sparring partner for real combat bots.
Max insists on taking it out to a fight. Charlie and he go round and round, and eventually Charlie relents, figuring the bot will get ripped apart and that will be the end of it. Turns out Atom can take a hit like a pro, and though Max is inexperienced, with Charlie's advice they actually win their first match. After that, they make a deal, with Charlie training Atom using its shadow mode and Max rigging up a voice activated controller so Atom can be run simply by shouting commands.
Somehow they work their way up the ranks to an actual exhibition fight, which they win by the skin of their teeth. Considering Atom was free and their opponent cost millions, Max goes a bit crazy and challenges the league champion Zeus to a match.
The antagonists were introduced earlier on as Tak Mashido (Karl Yune) and Farrah Lemkova (Olga Fonda). Basically Tak is the world's foremost bot engineer and Farrah is the trust-fund heiress to some multi-billion dollar company. They've essentially been dominating the league because they have more money to throw into Zeus's engineering and upkeep than anyone else, though this is not at all well explained.
But the time is up. The judge okays Max being returned to his aunt's custody. And Charlie, what with having gotten the living snot beaten out of him by an old creditor, decides this is no life for a kid.
Boohoo and tears all around until Bailey rips Charlie a new anus for turning his back on his son. Charlie goes back to Max asking for forgiveness and wanting him to be with him this one last time as Atom goes up against Zeus.
Zeus hits like a tank, but somehow Atom keeps getting up, as if it wants to fight. Charlie eventually figures out Zeus's tells, and they start doing damage to this bot that's supposedly never been struck before, let alone floored. But, as the rounds progress, Atom's voice activation controller breaks. And this is Charlie's chance. They re-engage the shadow mode so Atom mimics Charlie's punches. Without the lag between command and action, Atom thoroughly schools Zeus, crowd going nuts, and Charlie finally having regained the fire for boxing he thought he had lost. The final bell rings and both bots are still standing. Zeus wins by technical decision, and both Tak Mashido and Farrah Lemkova are booed on stage for being rich people.
End of story.
Introductions before the first bell
It's difficult for me to be harsh with this film. It's a bit like a puppy that's just ripped apart your favorite slippers. He's so happy in that he thinks he's done you a favor, and you might even smile a little, but the fact is he's just left a huge mess on the carpet.
I enjoyed it, but I walked away with a bad taste in my mouth… and I could make a number of crude phallic jokes here, but I've decided to go the high route considering a few people I know who will hit me otherwise.
Round One: Fight!
First off, the premise is fine, but the world in which it was placed was way off. Can you imagine 8-feet tall, 900 pound robots being allowed to walk down the street? Designed only to fight? I can't even take a nailclipper on an airplane anymore. In this paranoid time in which we live, the amount of paperwork, the lobbyists, the laws, the licensing, and all the regulations you'd have to deal with would make two guys getting into a ring and only one leaving so much easier. Not to mention the fact that these robots are not used in any other part of society. No militarization. No labor and construction. No menial tasks. Just recreational use. This lack of attention to detail in the world they've built is exactly the sort of thing that shatters the viewer's suspension of disbelief. The rest of the world in which events take place must adapt to the addition of new technology. Since they didn't, I couldn't once forget that this is all fiction.
Here comes the left!
Max, the boy whose mother just died, didn't once indicate any kind of remorse over her loss. The character was too busy being some tough-talking streetsmart punk to be an actual child and grieve. Had he and Charlie found the time to share a moment of sadness together, I would've had a much easier time of swallowing events. The boy who played him is an excellent actor and I look forward to seeing more from him, but the script clearly didn't allow for falling action and natural human emotion.
Ricky, the fair manager who screwed over Charlie several times, clearly had it in for Charlie. He even had Charlie beaten near to death. Then he makes a bet with a seriously dangerous looking bookie that Atom won't make it through the first round of the title fight with Zeus. When Atom survives, Ricky tries to run out on the bet. He disappears, being dragged away by the bookie's men. Presumably this is meant to be some kind of closure or resolution to let the viewer know that Ricky got what was coming to him. Ricky was a dick, but he wanted his money back and he did what was necessary to get it back. He wasn't an antagonist. He wasn't really anything. And his disappearance in the end having nothing to do with Charlie's actions was infuriating. In other words, it was a completely unnecessary character that should've been cut from the first draft of the script or given a much more important part.
Oooooh. Hard right to the chin!
That leads me to my biggest point. There were no actual antagonists. Farrah Lemkova and Tak Mashido were arrogant, rich prigs, but they weren't evil and they didn't do anything wrong. If this was meant to be some kind of a classist statement of the vast divide between the wealthy and poor in this country, it fell flat because no one out and out stated that's what was going on. It's as if the viewer was just supposed to brand these characters as villains, and then boo them when the time came. Now, had they worked with Ricky as their informant to gain intel on Atom and, in the face of a possible loss, decide to take Bailey hostage and force Charlie to throw the fight with Zeus, then we'd have probable cause to consider them antagonists. It would also have really spiced up the last fight with Zeus. But, since there was no one who really opposed Charlie and Max, the story just meandered on until its inevitable conclusion before keeling over.
Here comes the finisher!
And another thing: Atom lost the fight with Zeus, but he still made the world sit up and take notice. This is so reminiscent of Rocky Balboa's final fight with Mason "The Line"Dixon, including his need to feel the fire within himself one final time, that I'm honestly surprised that copyright issues haven't come into it. Losing the fight but gaining a moral victory didn't really do anything. Now, had there been an ulterior motive, such as Charlie needing the money from the fight because Bailey was ill and needed cancer treatments for example, that would heighten suspense up until the end and make Atom's victory all the more poignant.
And he's down! He's down! Start the count!
Barring that, the point at which the film ended should not have been the end of the story. Charlie showed that this shadow mode and the robot's instantaneous responses gave him a definite edge in the ring. Bailey had a boxing gym completely devoid of customers. It stands to reason that all the bot nerds with their controllers would be filling the gym in a scene at the end of the film in order to learn to box so they could still compete, showing how they'd changed the robot fighting league and revived the old sport of boxing. And, had a few news reports on TV been running about Tak Mashido committing seppuku because the bot he designed to be unbeatable lost (and Farrah Lemkova's company dropped a thousand points in an hour, she ended up being deported, and was now forced to peddle her ass to salt miners in Siberia just to keep warm) the viewer would've been more appropriately satisfied, if not outright laughing.
This could've been a good script. It wasn't because of fundamental rules in fiction. You need a villain if the protagonist is meant to rise above any kind of opposition. Also, you can't skip the necessities of human emotion (Max's grieving) just because you don't have enough time on screen.
Watch it for the pretty special effects and attention to boxing techniques. Rent it if you oppose piracy. But don't buy it. If filmmakers want your money, they're going to have to work harder than this for it.