Friday, 28 October 2011
'Real Steel' review:
It doesn't matter who is promoting 'Real Steel', whether it's charismatic leading man Hugh Jackman, over-enthusiastic director Shawn Levy or an anonymous automaton of the PR machine, the message about the family robot boxing movie is consistent: "it's not about the robots" they say, "it's a father and son story." This is the standard line for almost any special effects led movie, so I didn't take it all that seriously going in. After all, 'Real Steel' is set in an improbable future in which the world's most popular spot is effectively 'Robot Wars', as machines battle it out in the boxing ring in place of flesh and blood humans. But it turns out, for better or worse, they were all telling the truth. Even if the film begins with a giant robot punching an animal in the face for entertainment in front of a family crowd (an act never scrutinised), it is a father and son bonding movie first and an underdog boxing movie (with fighting robots) second.
Jackman plays a former boxer who never got to fulfil his potential because of all the worldwide robo-love. As a result he's now a jaded robot boxing trainer: down on his luck, owing a lot of money to a lot of people and sort of into Evangeline Lilly's gym owner (though this is never explored). Additionally, he's brash, cocky and arrogant. We meet him on the run from his latest humiliating defeat, as he's told that an ex-girlfriend from more than a decade ago has just died, leaving him in custody of his son (Dakota Goyo) - who he has never met and has less than no interest in. So, being an upstanding citizen, he sells the boy to his wealthy aunt for $50, 000 in order to buy a new fighting robot (this actually happens). But there is a snag as said aunt wants to go on holiday abroad (she seemingly isn't too upset about the death of her sister and - to be honest - neither is the boy, who gets stuck into building robots within minutes), leaving Jackman looking after the kid on a temporary basis.
It's nice to see an entry into the Spielbergian "absent father" sub-genre in which the dad is actually allowed to be a total prick, as opposed to committing the sin of having to go to work rather than play pirates all day (as in 'Hook'). Jackman sells this dickishness with commitment, bravely jettisoning a sizable amount of his inherent likeability for the first half of the movie. As the boy, Goyo is also pretty good (though his haircut and propensity to fix robots makes him distractingly similar to a young Anakin Skywalker), whilst Lilly (of 'Lost' fame) makes a good fit as the best friend/love interest/potential surrogate mother figure. It helps that the robots themselves are well designed too: the upshot being that you can always tell them apart during the fights and they seem to suggest an amount of personality - both attributes lacking in the 'Transformers' movies.
It's also colourful and - with the exception of an unnecessary "payback" moment late on - mostly good-natured, which I guess is the least that could be expected from a director whose filmography is comprised of bland comedies (remakes of 'The Pink Pather' and 'Cheaper by the Dozen', as well as 'Big Fat Liar' and the 'Night at the Museum' movies). But as restless young legs knocked the back of my seat it was clear something wasn't working. You see, there isn't much robo-boxing and some of the kids in the showing I attended clearly didn't care about any of the bits in between. One child loudly summed up the general mood at regular intervals, and in doing so became the afternoon's highlight, shouting "dad, this is rubbish", followed later by "I want to go home!" and "yay! it's finished". The atmosphere generated by these discontented youngsters was curiously counter-productive to the movie's family message, as the dads kept their thankless offspring prisoner in the cinema. Ignoring for a moment the fact that the action scenes (two robots hitting each other) are inherently boring anyway, the slowness of the dominant father and son story is truly crushing.
Some of it's laughable too, but not just with the trademark Levy humour (funny accents, lots of falling over) but with some calculated sub-Bieber dance routines, as the kid engages in bouts of "street" body popping with his best buddy robot, and one cheese-loaded sequence in which the boy goes for a run with the machine and makes it give him a big hug (awww!). The tone is uneven, shifting uneasily between gentle, understated moments of the father and son on the road (in the beautiful rural south of the US) and a sort of '8 Mile' attitude at the "underground" robot fights (why on earth would robot boxing have an underground? What is the difference?). It also doesn't help that the film's message is confused: Jackman personally controls his robot by shadow boxing whereas their major league rival is controlled by a less romantic array of men at computers, with the implication being that battle robots/computers/action scenes are souless and no substitute for human characters - a point undermined, not only by the premise of the film, but by a vague suggestion that the scrappy good guy robot (our plucky, low-tech underdog) has something like a soul.
'Real Steel' isn't a good movie and, to be brutally honest, I've been kinder here than was my first impulse on leaving the screen. But in genuinely trying to give the human story some heft, rather than viewing it as an inconvenience between robot fights, the film deserves some small credit. It might not do angsty drama particularly well, but it's a move in the right direction: in 2011 a family movie with punching robots that isn't full of masturbation jokes, women in hot pants bending over motorcycles and regressive ethnic stereotypes doesn't deserve to be torn to shreds and actually seems strangely quaint.
'Real Steel' has been on general release in the UK and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.