In the words of the protagonist: “Ok, that was awesome”.
There are no words that express my feelings about the film Real Steel more aptly than those four. In my head, that litany was chanted as every new bout unfolded on screen. When Ambush steps into the ring with the bull? Awesome! When Noisy Boy is un-boxed and then steps into the ring with Midas? Awesome! When Atom wins his first fight? AWESOME.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The movie is your basic underdog story. You’ve seen Rocky, right? Karate Kid? Then you know the trope. In the near future, robot boxing has taken the place of contact sports in order to give the public what they really want: blood. These new gladiators are just as ruthless and brutal as their historical counterparts and don’t stop until their opponent is a pile of scrap.
Down and out Charlie Kenton is a former boxer who’s been put out of work by robots. He now ekes out a living controlling robots in the ring, telegraphing his skills through buttons and waldos. After losing a series of bad bets, however, he’s lost everything he has and is on the run from several bookies. Of course, this is the perfect time to throw in a spunky kid that makes him see the error of his ways.
You see where this is going, too, don’t you?
It doesn’t matter, though. The whole movie is as predictable as my morning bowel movement but it works and it's fun. Like something out of the Sam Raimi playbook. We know the kid’s enthusiasm and adorableness will get to the scruffy dad he will change his evil ways. We know that there’s no way in hell that Atom is going to lose his first few fights. We know that the big bad corporate money isn’t going to win over the small guy.
This is Hollywood after all.
Of course, this being Hollywood, the set pieces of the movie are big, loud and expensive. Looking at them, one can’t help but draw a lot of comparisons to the recent Transformers: Dark of the Moon There are five main robot fights in the film, spaced out over the 2 hours and 7 minutes runtime, but the rest of the film is populated by a lot of human interaction between father and son. The last Transformers movie was more of the same, focusing mostly on the human characters in an effort to save money (let’s not kid ourselves – if they could give us a movie with 2 hours of robot fights, they would have).
The difference between the two films, though, is that the human portion of this movie isn’t completely retarded: the characters aren’t total caricatures. Though Charlie is a lout, you can feel for him. Sure, he’s down on his luck, he’s a compulsive gambler, and he ran out on his kid, but he’s a fighter. As Brando once said to another Charley, “I coulda been a contender!” There’s a veracity to him that Shia Lebouf can’t begin to approach. Plus, you know, there’s the kid with the big eyes and the flippant tongue to straighten him out. While it’s cliché’d, it works.
On the flip side, the robot fights aren’t total messes either. There’s a logic to their progression: you can follow these. You know the geography of the scene, there’s a clear and simple goal to each. Never do the effects take over the film, though they are pretty spectacular. After that first fight, the robots are as much real actors as Johnny 5 was in Short Circuit and you don’t really feel the need to examine each scene for flaws in the pattern.
A great deal of that is because the effects in the film are a mix of animatronics and CGI. Whenever you see a close-up of a robot that isn’t fighting or moving quickly, it’s probably really there. That gives the film a more tactile flavor to it and helps you suspend your disbelief. Director, Shawn Levy, really learned a lot from his doing the Night at the Museum films and it’s great that he applied all his experience working with effects here.
The designs of the bots are great, too. While everyone’s going for “More detail!” “More detail!” these are simple, industrial machines. You can see the hydraulics, the gears, and the wires that control them. I’m not an engineer, but when I see a piston in the neck move when a robot runs his head, that is just cool. I’m not shouting in my head, “that’s bullshit!” anymore, I’m screaming “GODDAMNIMMAGETMEONNADOSE!”
The animation is spectacular too. Motion Capture is getting better and better and the choppy, deliberate look of the early days has almost disappeared. There’s a trailer shot where Charlie and Atom are shadow boxing and the robot’s punches look every bit as great as Hugh Jackman’s and come faster and faster as Jackman speeds up the workout. The SimulCam technology that the filmmakers used really allowed them to frame the action perfectly and give you the sense that you’re watching a sporting event, not some cartoon. I hope they use this stuff in the next Transformers movie.
Real Steel is a much brighter adaptation of the Richard Matheson short story, Steel, than the 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone. In that version, the protagonist, desperate for money and having lost his last robot, decides to step in the ring himself, believing that like John Henry he could defeat the machine that had replaced him. It's not a happy ending. While that story is powerful and fits in with hard science fiction's generally dismal view of the future, I'm glad this wasn't some ham-handed cautionary tale.
This ain't Shakespeare, but it sure ain't Michael Bay either.