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Non-Review Review: Real Steel

Well, at the very least, Real Steel confirms that Hugh Jackman is a bona fides movie star (as if X-Men Origins: Wolverine didn’t already do that). It proves that the actor can pretty successfully anchor and ground any high concept blockbuster in a charming performance, one that’s engaging and witty enough to allow the audience to overlook some of the movie’s more obvious flaws. Still, despite the rather wonderful special effects and the strong cast, I left Real Steel feeling just a little bit strange, as if I’d been watching a movie that I appreciated, but never really engaged with.

And in the neon orange corner...

I should confess, in the interest of being up-front, that I am not a fan of boxing. I don’t think the sport should be banned or think poorly of those who enjoy the watching or the partaking, or anything like that. It’s just not for me. I understand that those who take part are consenting adults, as aware of the risks as I am (if not moreso), and I can respect the arguments that it’s a worthwhile activity that builds or defines character – everybody is entitled to their opinion, and I have no problem with that. It’s purely personal taste. I don’t enjoy the idea of watching somebody really hurting and suffering for my entertainment or enjoyment. It’s arguably a big part of my distaste for reality television, which is based around the core concept of public exploitation and humiliation. That’s a discussion for another day.

On the other hand, I generally quite like movies about boxing. I think part of this is the barrier it creates between the audience and the very real suffering. I know, no matter how hard Mark Wahlberg might try, that there’s little chance of any internal bleeding after a day filming The Fighter. I know that Hilary Swank is convincing, but all the actors go home at the end of filming Million Dollar Baby. Suspension of disbelief allows me to engage with the sort of triumph and struggle that takes pace in the ring, but without worrying about any of the very real consequences stemming from the violence. I can understand if people might deem it hypocritical for me to enjoy the fictionalisation of real events I never would have watched, but I think that the insulation is a large part of why these sorts of boxing movies work – they offer the chance of victory with no real risk of pain and suffering (despite how well-formed the characters might seem). There’s a cushion or a padding there that I think allows boxing movies to reach an audience they wouldn’t otherwise.

Sparking a father-son relationship...

I mention it, because Real Steel takes that padding and insulation, and frames it inside the fictional film itself. Not only is the screen serving as a safety net from any risk of real bloodshed, but there’s a layer within the film itself that stands between the characters and any chance of physical harm. You’d imagine that one of the major selling points of the HP-powered robot boxing within the film itself would be that there’s no chance of anybody getting hurt – that there’s no chance of anyone dying or getting brain-damaged or any of those worst-case scenarios that you hear whispered from time to time. Robot boxing allows people to enjoy the same spectacle, but knowing that the most lost is parts and labour.

However, such a point would diminish the emotional impact of the film. It would almost make the film seem like a film about a film about boxing, if that makes sense, with the chance of loss feeling more abstract and removed than we’re used to. So Shaun Levy’s film doesn’t play up the possibility of bloodless carnage or risk-free boxing. In fact, it tries to do the opposite, by trying to convince us to emotionally invest in the robot, and – as such – creates a frustrating central conflict. When his son asks him why regular boxing was replaced with robots fighting, Charlie replies, “Because that’s where the money went.” One suspects there’s a far more sinister reason why robot boxing became far more popular: you can do things to robots you could never dream of doing to people.

Leaping into action...

The movie takes sadistic glee in tearing robots limb-from-limb, spinning heads, warping bodywork and spraying coolant and hydraulic fluid all over the place, filmed to evoke the feeling of blood on canvas. We’re treated to underground robot fights were anything goes and the more brutal the tactics, the better the crowd responds. Things are done to robots that would snap people in half, all the more unsettling because all the robots are designed to conform to a basically humanoid design (two arms and two legs, walking upright and, in most cases, one head). It’s something that you can get away with when it comes to robots because, as somebody said in another Hugh Jackman film, “they’re not people.”

Except Shawn Levy is a better filmmaker than that. He knows that you need the audience to care about the body in the ring. So while Charlie is never in any direct danger, with the loss of a robot he paid nothing for seeming like an academic risk, the viewers need to engage with Atom, the scrapyard robot. And so the film tries to infuse him with some hint of humanity. Most obviously, in dialogue, Atom is a “he” rather than an “it”, despite not containing any gender-specific traits. “I know you’ve got it in you,” Charlie assures the robot before the fight, which seems a strange sentiment if he’s not talking about hydraulic fluid. After one event, we’re told, “This robot dug deep and showed us something a lot like heart.” Levy even gives us a crack across his faceplate that looks like a smile, and offers long lingering shots of Atom’s eyes staring at his own reflection. The movie only really works if we buy Atom as a character in his own right, something worth investing in.

Thinking outside the box(ing)...

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing in the script to suggest that Atom is sentient, save a little boy’s belief (and the kid seems smart enough to be speaking metaphorically rather than literally), but it seems strange that everybody invests so much personality in an object that they discard so easily. It’s disconcerting to see so much cruelty towards something that the human cast members imbue with a real sense of identity, particularly when nobody is too bothered about the brutality it is subjected to. It feels like a strange disconnect, because it seems that he’s only worth smashing up because they’ve projected this personality on to him.

Still, that’s enough rambling. The movie is well-directed by Shawn Levy, who brings a wonderful flair to the fighting robot scenes, which really are impressive. More than that, he clearly has a good eye for framing a shot, and a firm handle on his cast. Anthony Mackie, Evangeline Lilly, Hope Davies, Kevin Durand and James Rebhorn are all quality actors who round out a solid supporting cast who are basic archetypes one expects in a film like this. The movie doesn’t give any of them anything exceptional to do, but the cast do a more-than decent job with the material.

Fight! Fight! Fight!

However, it’s the two leads who carry the film, and who are largely responsible for the movie working as well as it does. Dakota Goyo is great as Charlie’s son Max, attempting to reconcile with a father who can’t even remember his age. It helps that Max is the best written character in the film, never seeming like a cliché or Hollywood’s idea of what a kid should act like. He’s not “radical” or “awesome”, but he’s a character who needs a lot of growth. He loves his robot, but he’s also careless and arrogant about it. He’s smart, but he still needs his father and still has a lot to learn about the world. There’s one lovely sequence where Max stays up all night, with cans of Dr. Pepper decorated around the place in the same way his father leaves beer bottles.

And then there’s Charlie. In a film like this, forgetting your kid was at school or missing a birthday party is the kind of situation that denotes a character is a bad parent. Charlie sells his son, which leads to my favourite exchange of the whole movie, and one delivered with aplomb by Jackman and Goyo:

You sold me for fifty grand! You owe me half!

I don’t have half! I bought a robot!

Charlie is a genuinely deadbeat dad, and he’s one of the rare characters in a film like this who seems like he actually needs work – the audience never worries over the course of the film that anybody is thinking too lowly of Charlie Kenton. It’s a bold decision, and something that the script deserves credit for – we don’t see these sorts of genuinely fundamentally flawed characters often enough.

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto...

However, and it’s a big however, the film doesn’t necessarily convince us that Charlie has changed. Sure, he remembers his kid doesn’t like hamburgers and he comes back to take him to a fight, but those are hardly decisions that cost Charlie anything to make. In fact, given his cynical approach to the child’s relationship with the robot – pointing out that “people love the kid thing”and exploiting it as a sales gimmick – you could make the case that Charlie is simply using his son as a means of achieving fame and fortune, knowing the title bout won’t sell nearly as well without the kid. The only reason we know that isn’t the case is because this is a family film, but we don’t believe Charlie has changed so much that he won’t relapse into his old habits at the first sign of trouble.

It’s literally only Hugh Jackman that makes Charlie seem like a completely irredeemable douchebag, and that says a lot about Jackman’s charm in the leading role. Still, it doesn’t work as well as it should – we can’t point to a particular instant where Charlie changed, or even a key philosophical realisation that turned him around. There’s even a strange scene where (despite presumably handing over the key when saying his final goodbye to his girlfriend) he just “lets himself in” to her room at night as she sleeps. Charlie is a character who wouldn’t work played by any other leading man, and is proof that Jackman is a genuine leading man, which is hardly a surprise.

Hey, Zeus!

Real Steel is entertaining and diverting, and it’s well-acted and well-directed, but it does feel more than a little uneven. The film rather blatantly lifts from Rocky, much further than any flippant remarks might lead you to believe. It still feels strange the way the movie deals with the “personality” of the robot and the casual way he’s put at risk by those who seem to “love” him, and Charlie Kenton doesn’t have a complete emotional arc, but it’s not a bad film. It’s just not a great one, either.

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