- Vancouver, British Columbia - If truth be told, I'm not crazy about special effects in films today. Perhaps since I grew up in the first generation that had its life saturated by extensive computerized special effects, they fail to impress me, especially when used on such a grand scale in so many films. I do remember being a younger child and being impressed at some of the effects used in films like Jurassic Park, but they are so commonplace today, I hardly even make any note about them. Thus when I saw a special effects-laden film like Real Steel was coming to theatres, I was hardly excited as it didn't seem to provide for anything new or compelling that I hadn't already seen. I like Hugh Jackman more as a person than as an actor, as the only roles that I've really enjoyed him in were as Wolverine in the X-Men franchise, Drover in Australia, and Robert Angier in The Prestige. Besides those, his other most memorable performance came as host of the 2009 Academy Awards, which if I'm honest, landed him as holding the honour of being my favourite host of the Oscars within the past ten years. Maybe it is no surprise then why my enthusiasm for Real Steel was minimal.
Real Steel is a story about robot boxing in 2020. Our hero is Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), a down-and-out promoter and former human boxer. He owes money to more people than he can count, which is in large part why he lives out of his truck with his robots. News comes to him, however, that his estranged 11-year old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), has been orphaned as a result of his mother passing away, which Charlie views as nothing more than an inconvenience to an already challenging life that he leads. Max himself isn't interested in being reunited with his father, but as a result of a deal with Charlie's ex-lover's sister's rich husband (got that?), he agrees to take Max for the summer, while they, Max's aunt and her wealthy husband, take off for an Italian summer vacation under the provision that they will possess full legal custody of Max afterward. Max has an interest in robot boxing, but neither of the two seems interested in sharing it with each other until they discover an old, second-generation sparring bot named Atom in an old junkyard.
Writing the previous synopsis was among the more challenging ones that I've had to write in the past year and a half of doing these film reviews. Admittedly, when I first saw the promotional material come for Real Steel, it appealed very little to me, as it looked to be merely a Rocky story told with robots. Don't get me wrong, I like Rocky, but there are only so many times we can watch the same story told before it gets tiresome. Real Steel's story is a challenge to sum up because there are too many character influences written into the plot to make the story work, which makes it overly complicated and confusing when one steps back from it after having viewed it. In the moment, it is easy enough to follow, but in hindsight, it is difficult to say what exactly the film was about. It also leaves the film feeling like it was sloppily written and assembled rather than taking a sharp, streamlined approach which would prevent the audience from wasting time and emotional investment on characters who are seen once and then forgotten.
That aside, I was provided with an opportunity to give Real Steel a look after it was recently nominated for the Best Visual Effects Academy Award. Truthfully speaking, when a film like Transformers: Dark of the Moon is nominated for an Oscar category, I tend to care very little for said category. Real Steel, however, proves to be very worthy of its nomination as the special effects are spectacular, leaving me a little surprised. What sets it apart from garbage like Transformers: Dark of the Moon is that most of what we see is in the form of animatronics, whereas so much of Transformers is done with computers. When the canvas is so large with a film like Transformers, it is easy to cheat and leave out significant detail in the special effect constructions, but one of the admirable aspects of Real Steel is that since it is on such a smaller scale, it looks as though great attention to detail was paid to each of the bots. The fight choreography is far superior to anything I've ever seen from Michael Bay and company in Transformers. Especially with Atom, it is often very difficult to tell when CGI effects were used on him, since the blending between the animatronics and the CGI was also impossible to differentiate. When it comes to Zeus, the champion fighting bot, it wasn't so perfect, but with the great work done on Atom, it was forgivable.
As for the film itself, there were some problems with Real Steel. I learned that despite my previous hesitations about giving this film the time of day, there is some good potential here. Sadly, the way in which the story is told disappoints, largely because so much of it feels forced and artificially manipulated for the purposes of the film. Rather than this story flowing in a natural manner, it feels like we're being told a story to necessitate certain plot movements. The character of Charlie is somewhat cliché, but there is nothing wrong with being cliché if one does it better than any one else has. Often in Charlie's character arc, he makes a decision that feels irrational in terms of his character, and while I get that he isn't always the wisest of characters, his decisions feel forced by the writers. Max shows a great deal of more consistency throughout the film as a character, while Charlie continually de-stabilizes us as an audience, since once we think we have him figured out as a character, he does something that goes against what we've just seen him grow into as a character. Sometimes this can work in a story, but this isn't the right story for it.
Even the inclusion of the Texan promoter, Ricky (Kevin Durand), was frustrating. He felt like an incomplete character who was used poorly. He was entirely necessary in the beginning to reveal how pathetic Charlie is and how he has seen better days, but the way in which Ricky is utilized in the end is too simplistic. Naturally as an audience, we want to see Charlie and Max have justice or somehow defeat Ricky, but the manner in which this "victory" comes has almost nothing to do with the two, as the escalated "conflict" doesn't actually engage between Ricky and the Kentons. As a result of this, we see that this "victory" was merely created to satisfy the audience's need to see Ricky defeated, leaving it feeling like a poor tying up of a loose end in the plot. As far as we can assume, Charlie and Max would never know of this defeat on the part of Ricky, so they likely would feel little redemption. I haven't seen such a poor example of writing for the audience rather than for the characters in awhile and it really tarnished the film.
Something that left me confused was the character of Atom. Were the filmmakers suggesting that he possessed some level of a sentient nature, or was he merely a machine with no capacity for emotional experience? It reminded me of The Iron Giant, or at the very least, left me wondering if it would borrow elements of that, but in the end, we don't see this being the case. The frustrating part is that there is an extended shot of Atom when the Kentons leave him for a meeting and the camera lingers so long on his glowing neon eyes, we can't help but think that we're being told that Atom feels, but by the time the film is finished, we're never given any confirmation if this truly is the case.
The ending of the film was surprisingly satisfactory though. If the writers had gone an opposite direction, it would've felt like a sequel was being suggested too heavily, and while it has already been announced that a sequel is in the works, the ending that the writers went with provided the opportunity for Real Steel to operate as a stand-alone film. We're given a satisfying ending, which leaves few questions, while also allowing for the possibility of a sequel. Yet I say all of this and can't help realize how much the film's finale resembles Rocky's. It is an underdog tale like Rocky, but one of the things about boxing that makes it easier to work with in film than say other sports is that even if one comes up short, but fought as hard as a dog, we still respect him, because the achievement of going 15 rounds with someone takes an enormous amount of determination and will. With other sports, the option doesn't exist to play less than the full period of play, like four quarters in football or basketball, nine innings in baseball, or three periods in ice hockey. As a result, the courage to last the entire 15 rounds feels like a victory, even if the scoring judges feel differently.
Real Steel is a film that I had absolutely no interest in seeing at first, but as I gave it a chance, it grew on me, even if by the film's final credits, I couldn't help but feel disappointment at the wasted potential. Charlie's character as the deadbeat father who reforms and rebuilds his relationship with his son is cliché and not exactly written in a way that it is an improvement upon the previous incarnations that we've seen of such a character. Real Steel makes the fatal flaw of forcefully manipulating the film's plot to necessitate certain scenes and transitions, but in the end, it doesn't serve the film well, leaving it feeling unnatural. The special effects are excellent, but not enough to buoy this film from sinking under its own flaws.
Rating: 2.5/5 Sour Grapes