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"REAL STEEL"
(2011) (Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Action/Drama: A former boxer and the young son he never wanted make an unlikely team in trying to bring a resurrected sparring robot into the highly competitive world of professional robot boxing.
PLOT:
It's the year 2020 and Charlie Kenton (HUGH JACKMAN) is a former boxer who was put out of work when huge, remote controlled robots were introduced to replace humans and provide audiences with an even more violent version of the sport. Now, he tries to make a living pitting old robots against the likes of bulls as publicity stunts to make money.

But he's had no luck with that, resulting in gambling debts owed to the likes of bookie Ricky (KEVIN DURAND) who wants his cash. He also owes money to his former girlfriend, Bailey Tallet (EVANGELINE LILLY), who runs the gym where Charlie once trained under her father.

To make matters worse, Charlie now learns that his 11-year-old son, Max (DAKOTA GOYO), is back in his life. Charlie wanted no part of fatherhood and thus signed away his custody rights to the boy's mother, but as she's now passed away, Max is back. Fortunately for the boy, his Aunt Debra (HOPE DAVIS) wants custody, something Charlie is all too eager to sign over, especially when he realizes that Debra's husband, Marvin (JAMES REBHORN), is loaded and will essentially "buy" the boy for his wife.

As they're going away for the summer, however, the deal is that Charlie will watch over the boy for the next few months, when he really wants to pass off that responsibility to Bailey. But Max is intrigued by the world of robot boxing, and thus tags along, seeing his dad make bets with other fight bookies such as Finn (ANTHONY MACKIE).

When his latest 'bot loses badly, Charlie thinks he's done. But things look up when Max accidentally unearths an old sparring robot that he decides to fix up as his own. It turns out Atom can take quite a beating and, as controlled by Max or Charlie, can deliver the same, all of which results in a winning streak. As they head toward a potential showdown with the robot boxing champion, Zeus -- created by Tak Mashido (KARL YUNE) and promoted by Farra Lemkova (OLGA FONDA) -- the father and son find their relationship changing into something unexpected.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Hollywood already has or seemingly is planning on making films pretty much based on any material that's currently present or previously existed in the world as long as it contains some measure of public awareness. This, folks, is what's called laziness and lack of imagination, but since commerce now clearly triumphs art, it shouldn't surprise anyone that movies, TV shows, songs, video games, board games, children's toys and such are the sources of inspiration for many of today's filmmakers and studios.

With that in mind, I can't be faulted for only having one thing in mind when I first saw a preview for "Real Steel." And that was that they had finally sunk low enough to make a movie based on the old game Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. For those too young to remember, that was a boxing game where players used mechanical controllers to move plastic "robots" back and forth in a small boxing ring and throw punches with the intent of knocking the block off the opponent.

One should note that the plastic heads didn't really come off. Instead, they just popped up like alert ostriches, with the subsequent force of kids slapping those heads back into place certainly doing more damage than the actual punch. What's that? Oh, right. They were otherwise inanimate objects with no personalities or ability to move on their own.

Such seemed to be the case with the adverts for this film that probably wouldn't have seen the light of day save for the success of those little "Transformer" art house films that come out every few years and play only to snobby viewers who don't think anything's good unless it has subtitles. I jest, of course, as those flicks were huge successes and sacrificed high quality filmmaking for frenetic visual mayhem.

The filmmakers here -- namely director Shawn Levy (best known for the "Night at the Museum" movies) and screenwriter John Gatins -- try to go for a little more balance, meaning there's actually some drama included with all of the special effects (crafted both by computer visuals and physically present animatronics) and onscreen action.

What they're really done, however, is pretty much make a high-tech variation of "The Champ," the 1979 flick -- recently named the saddest movie ever and a remake itself of the 1931 film of the same name -- where Jon Voight played a former boxer with a gambling problem who tries to make a comeback while raising his young son.

Here, Hugh Jackman inherits the Voight part -- a former boxer who got pushed out of the sport along with all other human competitors who were replaced by robots to satisfy the audience's growing bloodlust for more violence -- while Dakota Goyo plays the kid part previously popularized by young Ricky Schroder. It's highly unlikely this new version of the old tale will best the '79 flick for overall sadness, nor will it earn or win any Oscar nominations like the '31 film, outside, possibly, of the special effects category.

That said, it's actually a bit more enjoyable and entertaining than I would have ever imagined, not that I had any strong allegiance to or hatred for the cinematic or game predecessors that obviously influenced it. Part of that obviously stems from the work of Jackman and Goyo, both on their own as well as their chemistry together. Neither is award worthy, but they deliver what's asked of them, although the action and brief funny moments obviously work better than the straight drama ones.

But it's really just their show as the robots don't have any personalities (no C3PO or Maximus Prime personas here), despite the film heavily trying to imply that there's some sort of intrinsic force inside the old sparring 'bot named Atom who becomes the default "Rocky" character. The other humans don't fare much better, be that Hope Davis playing the boy's aunt who wants custody of him (an agreeable proposition for Jackman's initial "I don't want to be a father" character); Anthony Mackie as the good fight bookie or Kevin Durand as the bad one; or Evangeline Lilly playing the one-time love interest and now just friend of the protagonist.

None of them are fleshed out to any degree, but let's be honest -- the film's target audience doesn't care a hoot about that. This is for boys who grew up on "The Iron Giant" or any other boy and his robot type stories (so much, I guess, for boys and their dogs anymore). In that regard it delivers what that demographic wants -- a fantasy flick where those viewers wish they could have a 'bot just like dear old Atom and bond with their dad over him.

Yes, it's intrinsically all quite goofy (imagine trying to watch this with a straight face before the success of the "Transformers" flicks), and Levy near completely botches the big final match between Atom (and, essentially, Jackman's character who's controlling him in "mirror mode" thus necessitating Jackman to pretty much fight the bout) and the resident, high tech and undefeated champion named - what else -- Zeus (I guess all of the Decepticon names were already taken).

Despite that and its Levy-fueled bevy of boxing movie clichés, it still managed to entertain me to a certain degree. While it didn't knock my block (or socks) off, at least I didn't have to worry about someone repeatedly having to slap my head back down onto my neck and shoulders so I could continue watching. "Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em Robots" -- uh -- "Real Steel" rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed September 21, 2011 / Posted October 7, 2011


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