"REAL STEEL" (2011) Review
Every once in a while, I would come across one of those movies in which I have to be forced to watch . . . against my will. This happened with Matthew Vaughn's 2007 comedy-fantasy "STARDUST". And it happened again with the 2008 movie, "SPEED RACER". Since I ended up enjoying both movies, I finally allowed a member of my family to talk me into seeing the recent Disney movie, "REAL STEEL".
Partially based upon Richard Matheson's 1956 short story called "Steel", the movie told the story of a struggling promoter of boxing robots named Charlie Kenton in the year 2020. After his own boxing robot bites the dust in a match with bull owned by a promoter to whom he owns money, Charlie finds himself saddled with Max, an 11 year-old son he had conceived with an ex-girlfriend that recently passed away. The two stumbles across a discarded robot, whom they hope will rise to the top of the robotic boxing world. Along the way, Charlie and Max manage to learn about each other before the latter ends up in the custody of his aunt Debra and her husband, Marvin.
I understand that the majority of "REAL STEEL" was filmed in Michigan. I find this rather odd, considering that most of the movie was set in Texas. Oh well. The movie did a pretty good job of creating an atmosphere similar to eastern and central Texas, thanks to Mauro Fiore's rich and colorful photograph. Unfortunately, the cast failed to convey the same atmosphere, considering that only one used a Texan accent.
But "REAL STEEL" is not about Texas. It is about the sport of boxing in which the contestants are no longer humans, but robots. Despite the fact that the movie is somewhat based upon a short story that also served as the basis of a "TWILIGHT ZONE" episode. What can I say? The movie failed to impress me. Boxing robots? Perhaps this story theme would have worked in the STAR TREK universe or even in that "TWILIGHT ZONE" episode. But this movie did not work for me. I simply could not find it within myself to care about the characters or whether the main protagonists' robot, Atom, would prevail.
One of my problems with "REAL STEEL" was screenwriter John Gatins' failure to make me care about Atom. The robot seemed more like a slightly contrived plot device created to manipulate tears and compassion toward it. If this movie had been about a human boxer, an android with strong human characteristics (think Data in "STAR TREK: NEXT GENERATION"), or in the case of the "TWILIGHT ZONE" episode - about a human pretending to be a robot; perhaps I could have felt some sympathy or any kind of emotion toward it, instead of sheer boredom.
As for the story regarding Charlie and Max's relationship, I found it very unoriginal and equally manipulative. This estranged parent-child plot line has been done to death in many movies either directed or produced by Steven Spielberg. By the way, "REAL STEEL" was released by DreamWorks, Spielberg's production company. From a technical perspective, "REAL STEEL" seemed like a well made movie. But I found it so unoriginal - despite the premise of boxing robots - and emotionally manipulative that it occurred to me that I may never warm up to it.
Like the movie's plot and production, the cast of "REAL STEEL" seemed technically on spot. I can honestly say that I could not spot a bad performance from the cast. Unfortunately, only two or three performances impressed me. One of them did not come from Hugh Jackman. Charlie Kenton was not the first slightly unsympathetic character he has portrayed. But his Charlie struck me as too much of a cliché for me to really care about. Even worse, Jackman portrayed a Texan with a Brooklyn (or New Jersey?) accent. On the other hand Kevin Durand managed to utilize a Texan accent. He portrayed a sports promoter named Ricky, to whom Charlie owned money. And I was not impressed. It was not Durand's fault. The poor man found himself stuck with a character that was nothing more than a second-rate, one-dimensional villain. Anthony Mackie was clearly wasted as Finn, another sports promoter and Charlie's friend. He gave it his best, but the character of Finn never struck me as interesting. And poor James Rehborn looked as if he could barely generate any interest in his character, the husband of Max's aunt.
But there were performances that managed to impress me. Dakota Goyo gave a savy performance as Charlie's estranged son, Max. Thankfully, he did not spend most of his screen time acting like many other petulant children, noisily resentful of being in the company of an estranged parent figure. Thanks to Gatins' script and Goyo's performance, Max struck me not only a lot more mature than his father; but also a far cry from being a cliché. I could say the same for Hope Davis' portrayal of Max's aunt Debra. Gatins could have easily written her character as a prim and cold-eye parental figure that would drive Max to his father's arms. But Davis had the good luck to portray a warm and intelligent woman, whose desire to raise Max had more to do with love than cold responsibility to a blood relative. Evangeline Lilly had come a long way from her first season on "LOST", seven years ago. I have never viewed her as a terrible actress. But I found her acting skills rather mediocre. Like I said, she has come a long way. Her performance in "REAL STEEL" made it apparent that she has become a solid and competent actress. In fact, I found her portrayal of Charlie's childhood friend and potential love interest, Bailey Tallet, to be a breath of fresh air. Her Bailey was frank, emotional, witty and not tainted by any clichés.
But in the end, neither the performances of Goyo, Hope, and Lilly; along with Fiore's photography could save "REAL STEEL". At least not for me. The movie did turn out to be a hit. And a good number of critics actually enjoyed the film. The problem for me was that I found it difficult to share their opinions. Who knows? Perhaps one day I might change my mind.