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Friday, October 21, 2011

Real Steel Movie

Review: Hugh Jackman stars in Real Steel a live-action version of rock-em-sockem robots, which harkens back to the underdog flicks of the 80s.

Real Steel is a throwback film. It is retro filmmaking, in a good way. Some could call it an homage to 80s underdog flicks, others might say that it is a traditional story archetype, using themes that have worked for years. In other words, it isn’t exactly an original plot, but it still works. From the first five minutes of Real Steel, you have a pretty good idea what will happen throughout. It is a simple film, with simple concepts, supported by good action, solid acting and timeless themes. Putting aside the flashy robots, it is nothing you haven’t seen before, but it also takes the familiar and does it very well.

There is a reason that underdog stories work so well. The 80s especially were littered with them, and in almost any movie featuring a competitive event of any kind—whether it be about, say a kid learning karate, an undersized boxer with a heart of gold, or a kid skiing to save the rec center from being turned into a strip mall!—the idea is the same. It doesn’t even have to be about sports, just competition.

Those days have changed, and while the theme is universal and eternal, most filmmakers feel the need to add what they see as twists and layers to what is already a proven formula. Sometimes it works, sometimes it takes away from what works. Real Steel is more straightforward than that, and the result is an inoffensive movie that is hard to hate, driven by the charisma of Hugh Jackman and the surprising talent of Dakota Goyo as the boy who finds a robot…and a father. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.

Max is a smart kid and understands that he was kind just slightly sold. He is, however, a big fan of the fighting bots, and convinces Charlie to let him tag along to watch him compete in robotic boxing events. Charlie grudgingly accedes. Following a disastrous fight they end up at a robotic junk yard, scavenging for pieces to try and put together a new robot, when Max discovers Atom.

Atom is the ultimate underdog. He is an obsolete fighting robot that was built as a sparring partner, which means that  he was designed to take a massive amount of punishment and still keep coming–just like any good underdog. And while it may seem odd to call a robot “him,” Atom is essentially a metal Rocky.

Atom soon begins fighting on the lowest tiers of the robot world, but quickly displays talents–including speed and the ability to take a whoopin’–which when paired with Charlie’s fighting knowledge, make Atom a contender. That of course, leads Atom, Charlie and Max on a collision course with Zeus, the ultimate fighting bot and reigning champion. But not before valuable lessons are learned and people grow, etc., etc

The plot of Real Steal basically takes all of the best underdog movies of the 80s, then picks and chooses the plot points that work best. And while that doesn’t make for the most original of films, it does lay the groundwork for a movie that appeals to a wide spectrum of people. It is also helped immensely by the performances of the stars, especially Hugh Jackman.

For a movie about things that don’t actually exist in the real world, Real Steel’s effects are more than up to the task. One of the main characters is a beat up robot that never speaks, so his entire personality has to be told through movement and details that are created mostly in a computer. It is always a risky proposition to place such emphasis on something that is entirely effects driven, but the CGI is well designed, and you will soon buy into the robot as a character.
Everybody loves a good underdog flick, with clearly defined good guys and bad, and it is hard to not like a character redemption arc where someone learns valuable life lessons and such. Throw on a visually impressive side filled with robots doing awesome things, and you have a hit. Having a A-list star in Hugh Jackman at the top of his game doesn’t hurt either. Real Steel may be a grown up version of rock-em-sockem-robots, but it is a good one that will appeal to a lot of people. 
Real Steel is a familiar and safe movie, filled with clich├ęs and plots you have heard a thousand times. But the unique gimmick of the robots, the performances of its stars and the effects that sell the underdog story through a robot avatar all work well. The story may not shock you, but it won’t need to because it is a proven commodity that is put together extremely well. Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum seriesDate Night) has made his career with films that aren’t exactly challenging, but are designed to reach a wide audience, and that is what he has done with Real Steel—his best film to date, and an overall good movie.


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