Shawn Levy's Real Steel
Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:
Real Steel (2011)
Boxing has never really made a particularly interesting subject for film. There have, of course, been exceptions to the rule in films like “Raging Bull” and “Cinderella Man,” but for films like this to succeed, they need to be about more than boxing and have fleshed-out characters that the audience can come to care about through good writing and development. On this basis, why did the filmmakers behind “Real Steel” think that replacing boxers with robots would help this process in any way?
The film, set in the near future, tells the story of a former boxer, Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), who is trying to make a living in the robot fighting game, but it’s not going very well. His latest fight resulted in his robot being destroyed. After this fight, he is approached by two men who inform him that his ex-girlfriend has passed away, leaving behind a son, Max (Dakota Goyo), who is now in his custody. Max also has an aunt, Debra (Hope Davis), who believes that it would be best for him to live with her and her husband, Marvin (James Rebhorn). Charlie ends up bargaining with Marvin for custody of Max, resulting in Charlie signing over the boy for $100,000 dollars, but only after Max spends the summer with him.
Max follows Charlie around as he goes about his robot fighting business which includes losing another robot at an underground fight. While searching for parts one night, Max comes across an old sparring robot that he believes could be a contender. After much debate, Charlie finally gets the robot, known as Atom, a small fight, which he surprisingly wins. So begins a streak of wins that eventually lands them in the official robot fighting league, and a possible shot at becoming world champion.
As mentioned, boxing is not a particularly interesting subject, so the attention will usually fall upon the characters involved. This tends to be the fighters themselves and their family and friends, which can sometimes make for an interesting story, but here, the writers (John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, and Jeremy Leven) have opted to replace the fighter with a robot with no emotions, making it pretty hard to care about what happens to it along the way.
This turns our attention to the ones controlling the robot, but even they are not particularly likeable or developed enough. Charlie is hard to get behind seeing as how he’s just in this business for the money, even selling custody of his kid early on. Then, of course, it takes him a majority of the film to realize that this was a big mistake. Max only seems to be into the sport because he enjoys watching robots beat the parts off each other.
The story itself is pretty much formulaic. The underdog robot goes on a streak of wins and eventually gets a shot at the title bout, and from there, there’s pretty much only two possible ways the story can go, so there’s nothing to get excited about, particularly because you’re just watching rockem sockem robots dueling it out in the ring. This can be said of all the fights in the film, of which there are several. It even hits a few lowpoints as we’re forced to watch Max make the robot dance before some of the fights.
What is perhaps the biggest nail in the coffin for the film, other than the lack of developed/engaging characters and story, is the fact that the film runs for an excessive two hours. There’s perhaps enough material here to cover an 80-90 minute film, but two hours was pushing it well beyond its limits, giving the film a feeling of being stretched out to an unnecessary length with filler scenes and pointless subplots, such as the one involving Charlie’s mentor’s daughter, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly).
What we’re left with is a film that lacks engagement in several of its elements. We’re also left with the original question as to why the filmmakers thought that an audience would be able to get behind cold, emotionless robots beating each other to pieces, given that the other characters just aren’t interesting. This is basically a more restrained version of the robot fights in the “Transformers” films, which, while they’re done better here than in those films, still doesn’t make for a compelling concept. “Real Steel” just never gives us a reason to care, and for two hours that can be quite detrimental. 2/4 stars.
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