Monday, November 21, 2011

A Movie You Don't Have to Think About -- Reflections on "Real Steel" (2011)

Who You Callin' 'Rock Em Sock Em'?

Recently, I got into a debate with a student over what we are looking for in a movie. He seemed to be interested in films that merely entertain or amuse him on a basic level -- hence the love for Transformers and most of Adam Sandler's catalog. When I explained why I found those types of movies to be so lame, he responded: "Mr. Dollins, you think too much when you watch movies." To which, I wanted very badly to say, "Maybe so, but you, my friend, don't seem to think enough."

I held my tongue, though, as hard as that was for me.

Well, I think I've found a film that satisfies both of us: Real Steel.

Real Steel is a movie I've seen a million times. It's the traditional "underdog gets a shot at redemption" story that goes way back to Biblical times; the type of story audiences eat up. When done right, these sorts of stories make for wonderful movies. Remember Rocky, The Karate Kid, and The Waterboy (just kidding on that last one)? Real Steel is done wonderfully, and may go down as one of the most lovable films this year.

The story combines family drama and sports films, but gives them a sci-fi twist. It tells the story of a down-and-out former boxer named Charlie (Hugh Jackman), who ekes out an existence borrowing money he never intends to payback and participating in robot fights on an underground circuit. Robot fighting in this not-too-distant future has become all the rage. Charlie's life becomes complicated when he discovers the mother of his bastard child has died, leaving him custody of the 11-year old, Max (Dakota Goyo). Charlie manages to sell his rights to Max to the boy's aunt for $100,000, but the only caveat is that he must take care of his son for a summer so the aunt and her husband can finish a vacation in Europe. Charlie decides to bring Max into his world and discovers the kid knows a thing or two about robot boxing himself.

After an early underground fight goes awry and Charlie loses a prized robot, he and Max discover a new one in the wrecks of a junkyard. This new bot, Atom, isn't much it seems. It was a sparring robot, capable of taking a beating, but not having much else to distinguish it. Max sees potential in the underdog, and is anxious to fight with him, much to Charlie's displeasure. Eventually, Max wins out and they get Atom involved in fights, and ... you can figure out the rest, I'm sure.

There isn't much surprising about Real Steel. As a narrative, it hits all the right beats. Thematically, it isn't saying anything that hasn't a) been said, and b) been said significantly better. What it has going for it, though, is an indomitable spirit, great heart, and some terrific performances. You know where everything's going, but it makes you smile anyway, and makes you root for the ending you have pretty much already figured out. To me, that's the sign of a good film.

Hugh Jackman's performance as Charlie is one of the best of his career. He's a cocky douchebag, but under the surface you can see a real man trying to break free. It's not hard to understand why his landlord and confidante, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly) is so in love with him. In the fatherhood department, you can sense his insecurity about how to manage his strong-willed son bubbling under the veneer of toughness. I really want to see Jackman do a great dramatic film someday. He's got the chops, elevating this simple fare with the same charisma he used to make X-Men a better film.

Another element to this movie I enjoyed was look and feel of the setting. It was very familiar, yet you could sense that this was indeed the future. The robots are remarkable design work, each having their own distinct personality and look. And their fights are well-staged and edited. One of my biggest fears about this film before seeing it was that watching robots fight would feel pointless and impersonal -- there doesn't seem to be much in the stakes department -- but director Shawn Levy found a way to make these fights matter, and make the robot, Atom, feel as important as any of the living characters.

While I'm sure I could find many things to criticize about this movie, I will take my student's advice and not think too much. Real Steel is exactly the sort of film it purports to be: a family-friendly entertainment about battling robots. It's a great way to spend a couple hours. You may not find your soul or your mind nurtured, but you will leave the theater with a smile on your face. That's important, too.

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