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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 7, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 40
Dopey Real Steel a mechanical melodrama
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Dopey Real Steel a mechanical melodrama

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Real Steel
Opening October 7


Sometime in the very near future, physical human boxing has made way for the robotic kind. Mechanical pugilists fight it out in the ring like Roman gladiators hacking and pounding one another to the death. A former prizefighter whose talents never got the opportunity to be realized, Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is an industry bottom-feeder searching for a robot who can take a punch and help him settle some of his outstanding debts. He's struggling, barely getting by, and he knows he's not a very good man, even if once upon a time he might have been. He's fairly positive his future isn't going to be a bright one.

Enter Max (Dakota Goyo). He's Charlie's 11-year-old son, a child he's done his best to forget after leaving him in the care of his mother a decade earlier. One thing leads to another and he's got custody of the kid for the remainder of the summer.

But something strange happens, and soon the estranged father-son duo is making a name for themselves on the boxing circuit. Thanks to a dilapidated sparring robot nicknamed Atom, Max and Charlie are climbing the ranks, transforming from pretenders to contenders in the blink of an eye. The Grinch-like former boxer re-growing a heart, and his son, dealing with an unspeakable tragedy, discovers a dad he never dreamt he'd get the opportunity to know.

What, in all reality, am I supposed to say about Shawn Levy's (Date Night, Night at the Museum) family-friendly coming-of-age morality tale Real Steel? This is, after all, a movie about robot fighting. It's a live-action version of Rock'em Sock'em Robots, nothing more (and certainly nothing less). Any pretense of trying to describe the movie as some sort of father-son sports-driven melodrama or an adolescent coming-of-age piece is stretching things far beyond their breaking point.

I guess what I can say is that this dopey piece of sci-fi pop entertainment, for all its faults, for all its drippy sentimentality, even at a far too long 126 minutes, isn't entirely a waste. Jackman is as likeable as ever, newcomer Goyo is surprisingly good, and Levy somehow manages to make the film's central robotic figure, Atom, a far more emotionally transfixing presence than it has any right to be. This movie knows what it is, knows what story beats it has to hit, knows which ones (more or less) to avoid, and becomes something easy to cheer along with (for those under the age of 12, anyway). It isn't a chore to sit through, and considering my expectations going in (as well as the rather dreary nature of the subject matter), this was a nice surprise.

None of which means I'm giving Real Steel a recommendation. Costars Hope Davis, Evangeline Lilly (playing Charlie's former flame and the daughter of his deceased boxing trainer), and Anthony Mackie (as a bizarrely scrupulous underground boxing promoter who likes Charlie but isn't about to bet on him) are flat-out wasted in nondescript supporting roles, and the fact that screenwriter John Gatins (Coach Carter) and story writers Dan Gilroy (The Fall) and Jeremy Leven (My Sister's Keeper) follow the Rocky template (think parts one, four, and five combined into a single narrative) is borderline inexcusable. The whole thing is both entirely too routine as well as instantly forgettable, a tandem not exactly high on my list of cinematic virtues to extol.

Not that any of this should come as a surprise (as one could tell from the film's melodramatic trailers). Stellar visual effects and smoothly charismatic lead performance from Jackman aside, there is little about Levy's latest to make it worthwhile. Yes, the youngsters will like it, and sure, adults aren't going to want to shoot themselves in the head if they're forced to sit through it, but neither of those things makes the movie good. Real Steel is as mechanical as its central pugilistic figures are. The whole thing is a soggy, overly familiar familial drama I honestly couldn't care less about.

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