Friday, October 7, 2011

Real Steel: A knock-out

Real Steel (2011) • View trailer for Real Steel
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for action, brief violence and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.7.11

Well, color me surprised.

Previews for Real Steel made it look like an unholy marriage between Rocky and Transformers, with the worst qualities of both.
Unable to control their robot via the usual headset or touchpad interface, Charlie
(Hugh Jackman, left) activates its "shadow" mode, which allows the machine to
mimic every move it sees. Young Max (Dakota Goyo) understands the
significance of this decision: It means that Charlie will rely on his own boxing
skills. But will they be enough?

And, true enough, this new robot boxing film does resemble a mash-up of those two elements, with dollops of The Champ thrown in for good measure ... not to mention a rather clever nod to the original Richard Matheson story.

The patchwork result shouldn’t work ... but it does. Real Steel is hokey and cornier than a Frank Capra melodrama, but it’s a crowd-pleasing delight nonetheless. Tuesday evening’s preview audience cheered in all the right spots; the enthusiasm level was so high, rolling into the third act, that folks couldn’t wait to see what would happen next.

Stars Hugh Jackman and Dakota Goyo deserve a lot of credit. So does John Rosengrant, for his smashing animatronic robot designs.

But the real star is director Shawn Levy, who has moved beyond his usual broad slapstick — Night at the Museum, Date Night and the Pink Panther revival — to put genuine heart into this crazy-quilt flick. Levy deftly avoids the overstated farce that characterizes (and often ruined) most of his previous films, and coaxes heartfelt performances while maintaining the proper atmosphere for the hybrid narrative scripted by John Gatins, from a story by Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven (based on the aforementioned Matheson piece).

Like Cowboys and Aliens, Real Steel is a blend of disparate elements, in this case futuristic robotics and contemporary working-class angst. That was true of Matheson’s original short story, as well, which was made into a nifty 1963 episode of Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone, with Lee Marvin in the role more or less inhabited here by Jackman.

The “near future” 2020 setting is an odd mix of technology and old-fashioned rodeos, carnivals and inner-city training gyms. The vehicles, clothes, social behavior and architecture feel quite contemporary, but the sport of boxing has been declared off-limits for human beings, who’ve been replaced in the ring by 8-foot battling ’bots.

No more loss of life or permanent brain damage ... and besides, as any kid who ever owned a set of Mattel’s Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots knows full well, watching ’bots bash each other is way cool.

Even so, washed-up former prizefighter Charlie Kenton (Jackman) hasn’t adjusted to the change. Now reduced to touring the underground boxing circuit, trying to secure matches for dilapidated rejects from the World Robot Boxing League, Charlie is forever one step ahead of various creditors who’d cheerfully break his legs in lieu of cash.

Worse yet, Charlie isn’t very adept at the robot remote controls. Unable to translate his hard-learned skills to joysticks and touchpads, he has the sad habit of coming out a loser.

Longtime gal pal Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly, recently of TV’s Lost), Charlie’s emotional refuge of choice, has had just about enough. She manages the gym she inherited from her father, who trained Charlie back in the day, when men met each other in the pugilist’s ring of honor.

Now, as if Charlie’s existing problems aren’t enough, he learns that his long-estranged 11-year-old son, Max (Goyo), has lost his mother. Charlie fled that relationship when the boy was born, and the thought of sudden parenthood is about as welcome as a case of the hives. Besides, the boy’s wealthy aunt and her husband — Debra (Hope Davis) and Marvin (James Rebhorn) — are perfectly willing to adopt Max.

But that requires a transfer of parental rights, since Charlie is the birth father. Sensing financial opportunity, he wangles a clandestine deal with Marvin that involves Charlie keeping the boy for a few weeks. Charlie expects to park Max with Bailey during that time, but the boy isn’t about to cooperate. Resentful but possessing a wide-eyed enthusiasm for the robot sport whose fringes Charlie occupies, Max insists on tagging along.

Anybody want to place bets on how long it takes the icy father/son dynamic to thaw?

Jackman has the role of grizzled, sloppy, alpha-male loner down pat, complete with working-class accent. He also has the physique to justify Charlie’s former career, and yes — ladies, stop panting — Jackman finds an excuse or two to remove his shirt.

Goyo — who may be remembered as Thor’s childhood self, earlier this year — is too adorable for words. Although predictably sulky, snarky and smart-mouthed at first — but not too much of the latter, in the manner of bratty TV sitcom kids — Max nonetheless has a vulnerable side that bespeaks his recent loss and concern over the future. His kid-style enthusiasm also is properly delivered; what boy wouldn't love to be around these towering, gleaming robots?

Still, Max’s emotional anguish and Charlie’s panicked reserve seem destined never to relax, until — after the latter loses yet another bout, in the process allowing a perfectly good robot to be destroyed — a late-night scavenging expedition uncovers a discarded “sparring robot” dubbed Atom. Max falls in love, in part because Atom’s curious ability to mimic movements makes him seem somehow sentient. (So does the clever, folded-mesh “smile” that Rosengrant adds beneath the robot’s glowing green optical sensors.)

The boy pleads for his father’s help, to get this ’bot back to actual fighting strength. In a nice bit of parallel character structure, Charlie is no more able to resist his son’s soulful gaze, than Bailey can ignore Charlie’s come-hither glance.

Cue the segue into Act 2, as the already engaging underdog saga truly kicks into gear.

Our growing emotional bond with these characters fuels the story, but the well-conceived environment plays an equally strong part. The various stops in the underground boxing circuit feel credible — particularly “the Zoo” — and it’s not difficult to imagine something like this scenario actually coming to pass (robot technology permitting, of course).

Additionally, Rosengrant imbues each hulking robot with its own unique look and personality, from the sleek Noisy Boy and sadly low-rent Ambush, to the ferocious, mohawk-sporting Midas and the two-headed Twin Cities. Each has a different fighting style, and each delivers engaging anthropomorphized “facial reactions” at unexpected moments.

Atom gets the lion’s share of behavior traits, of course, and we’re never quite sure if actual awareness lurks within. Max certainly thinks so, and if you believe something strongly enough...

The ultimate battle ’bot, however, is the Darth Vader-esque Zeus, champion of the WRB, which has defeated — if not destroyed — all opponents before the end of the first round. Zeus is the genius creation of the chilly Tak Mashido (Karl Yune), the world’s premiere robot designer, and his coldly condescending partner, Farra Lemkova (Olga Fonda).

Needless to say, Mashido, Lemkova and Zeus will figure in Act 3.

Lilly is quite convincing as the nurturing, compassionate and (at times) exasperated Bailey. Kevin Durand is memorable as Ricky, an arrogant good ol’ boy who once beat Charlie in the ring, and now seizes every opportunity to humiliate him on the robot fighting circuit. Anthony Mackie also does nice work in the small role of Finn, host of The Crash Palace.

Danny Elfman delivers an appropriately rousing score, and editor Dean Zimmerman maintains a crisp pace. Production designer Tom Meyer’s sets are magnified just a touch beyond “real world,” and cleverly so; I particularly like his conception of the Zoo, and the Crash Palace’s blend of working-class grunge and punk is equally colorful.

Bottom line: Real Steel is a total kick.

And an intriguing concept to contemplate, as well.

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