Real Steel: A Solid One-Two Punch of a Film

15 10 2011

A movie about Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots? Not quite. While this is NOT a movie based on the grandfather of all button-mashing games, Real Steel is, indeed, a movie about robots beating the bolts out of each other. And it’s pretty darn fun. Here’s the breakdown:

The year is 2020 and human boxing is a thing of the past. Robot boxing is all the rage; robots can take more hits, move faster, create a more entertaining experience for spectators. Enter Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), an ex-boxer himself who has adapted to the robot boxing craze. But when Charlie is reunited with his estranged son (Dakota Goyo), he must make some tough choices between money, fame and family.

The Monkey: The overall feel of Real Steel is very “Americana.” Its futuristic setting is not distracting and the state fairs, rural locations and even urban arena scenes still feel very real and accessible. At its core, Real Steel is about a father-son relationship and the fight to make dreams reality. Sound a bit cliche? Maybe, but Real Steel offers enough exciting visuals and compelling performances to make it all worth while. Speaking of exciting visuals and compelling performances…

The robot boxing scenes are spectacular. One can see why human boxing diminishes in the future; robot boxing is brutal and intense, an entertaining experience well beyond anything a human fighter could deliver. From crushed metal to leaking hydraulic fluid, squealing pistons to sparking wires, Real Steel might even have better robot fights than the Transformer movies…at the very least, much grittier. The filmmakers do an excellent job of showing the full breadth of the sport, from seedy underground rings to mega-stadium showdowns, lending a much appreciated level of credence to the story.

But it’s not all gleaming robots and spring-loaded punches. Real Steel is held together by a surprisingly emotional father-and-son story arc. Hugh Jackman plays the apathetic (and rather cold) Charlie well, keeping the audience at a distance without making the character unlikable. Despite his heartless behavior at the beginning of the film, you still want to see him succeed and move beyond his selfishness. Real Steel even dips into the very real problem of gambling and addiction, a shockingly mature theme for a movie touting robot fun for the whole family. While it is a surprising theme to include, it’s refreshing, made even more so by the absolutely stunning performance by relative unknown, Dakota Goyo.

This kid rocked it. And while Real Steel will probably never see an Oscar nomination, Goyo deserves one. Child actors are hit-or-miss, but Goyo makes his adult co-stars look like amateurs. Not only does he carry much of the comic relief in the film, he’s also responsible for much of the emotional drama. That’s a lot to expect from a young actor, but Goyo pulls it off not only well, but effortlessly. You almost forget he’s acting at all, he’s so completely comfortable and natural in his role as Max Kenton.

The film’s finale is pretty much what you’d expect from a sports-themed movie, but despite its predictable nature, it’s a pleasure to watch. The emotions are real, the action is intense; there’s nothing here not to like.

The Weasel: There are several unanswered questions. What happened to Max’s mom? What really was the connection between Max’s mom and Charlie? Much of the film is spent talking about how wonderful she was, but with little to go on, most of this seems like filler dialogue, not contributing to the overall emotional thread of the story.

And I’m unsure of what to say about the robot characters…if you can even call them characters. Atom is the main robot boxer, an outdated sparring robot that comes out of nowhere as the underdog competitor. Yet he’s controlled via remote and a “shadow” program. So is he somehow sentient? Several moments in the film hint at this. But if that’s the case, the violence of the boxing matches becomes uncomfortable. If this is a character that somehow has feelings and emotions, seeing these robots pummeled to scrap is rather unsettling. But if they aren’t emotional characters, it’s hard to really have an emotional stake in their fight, aside from their human controllers. I think this is an aspect of the film that could have really been examined more closely, and could have elevated the philosophical tone of the story. Humans were replaced by robots, but are the robot fights any more “humane”? If the human characters in the movie were forced to ask some of these tough questions, it would have added a wonderful amount of depth to the already solid story…alas, it was relatively glossed over.

A creative take on the sports drama, Real Steel is a fun action movie, a special-effects feast and a surprisingly emotional father-son story. Definitely wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel to this one.

4.5 Death Stars out of 5

What do you think? Did you enjoy the robot fights? How’d you think Dakota Goyo did in his role? Share your thoughts in the comments!


The Fighter: Talented Cast Elevates Film Above Typical Sports Story

20 12 2010

The Fighter, based on the true story of boxer “Irish” Mickey Ward and his half-brother, Dicky, is a refreshingly original take on the sports/boxing genre, and offers a unique look at inner-city Massachusetts life in the mid 1980s. Here’s the breakdown:

Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) is struggling to make it in the world of professional boxing. An overbearing manager, mother Alice (Melissa Leo), a budding relationship with Charlene (Amy Adams), and a tumultuous relationship with trainer, half-brother, ex-fighter and crack addict Dicky are all hurdles and blessings on his path to success in the ring.

The Monkey: The acting in this film is what made it. Melissa Leo as the drawling, chain-smoking mother, Amy Adams as the fiery girlfriend, and Christian Bale as the emaciated, over-the-top, druggy-with-a-heart-of-gold; these three actors delivered powerhouse performances. It’s rare to see even one actor in a movie deliver this level of emotional weight and immersive believablity. This makes The Fighter a treat of the highest order, with three exceptional actors bringing three exceptional performances to the table.

Christian Bale is sure to get lots of love this awards season, as he should. Never one to shy away from drastic physical changes for a role (he lost 63 pounds for The Machinist and bulked up for Batman Begins), Bale’s glassy eyes and chicken neck are but shadowy figments of the inner issues he acts out onscreen. While Hollywood is never short on depictions of drug-use and addiction, Bale’s performance is a very different take, examining the profound impact it has on family ties and personal relationships. And it’s this family relationship that is at the heart of The Fighter. And at the heart of the movie’s onscreen family is Alice. Melissa Leo plays the matriarch so deftly, she manages to avoid the role of villainess and the role of doting mother at the same time. While at times her actions are downright cruel and unforgivable, Leo is able to remind the audience of her undying love for her family. Viewers will struggle with the same emotions her children surely felt: how can you love a woman who acts this way, but how can you not?

The focus of The Fighter is the relationships that both hindered and helped Mickey through his career. It was this approach that saved the movie from becoming just one more underdog sports flick. The audience actually learns more about the sport of boxing, actually cares more about Mickey’s success, actually want to see Mickey succeed because the audience is invested in his personal life, invested in his relationships. The boxing is secondary, a public expression of his private struggles. The movie is less about boxing and more about the personal ups and downs one must go through to realize a dream. For that, I almost wouldn’t even classify The Fighter as a sports movie, but rather a family drama.

The Weasel: I think it would be unfair to say Mark Wahlberg failed to deliver, because, in any other movie, with any other cast, he would have stood out; however, The Fighter packs so much talent into 115 minutes that, unfortuately, it’s Wahlberg’s performance that gets overpowered. So much so, in fact, that one walks out of the movie feeling it was much more about Dicky’s story than it was Mickey’s.

While the dialogue, the directing and the other technical aspects of the film were excellent, the overall rhythm of the storytelling was inconsistent. If The Fighter had employed a cast of any less talent, the rather slow pace of the film would have been that much more apparent. As luck would have it, the talented cast carried the movie through any narrative lulls.

The Fighter manages to rise above typical sports movie fare, revealing the raw, personal side of an athlete’s struggle. The movie’s success is also, unquestionably, due to the unparalleled efforts of Christian Bale, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams. I hope awards season recognizes their accomplishments.

4 Death Stars out of 5

What do you think? Did The Fighter feel like other sports movies? Is Christian Bale deserving of all the pre-Oscar award buzz? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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