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!


Sucker Punch: Lives Up To Its Name In Every Way

26 03 2011

While Zack Snyder is known for his masterful adaptations (Watchmen, 300) Sucker Punch is his first attempt at directing a film based on his own original script. Here’s the breakdown:

After being institutionalized by her evil stepfather, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) must delve into a layered realm of alternate realities in order to collect the necessary items needed to escape. Fellow patients Rocket (Jena Malone), Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) join Baby Doll in her fight for survival.

The Monkey: This movie is a study in stylized filmmaking. From its brain-buzzing soundtrack to its gratuitous slow motion, Sucker Punch has no qualms about being a sensory feast. It owns it and drives it home so hard, you can hardly argue with the execution. The term “eye-candy” seems far too subdued – Sucker Punch is more like an eye-gasm. For every single one of its 109 minutes, Sucker Punch gives the audience something to look at. Whether it’s absurdly perfect eyelashes or a full-on mechanized-Nazi-zombie brawl, every frame is gorgeous. And yes, I just said mechanized-Nazi-zombie brawl. More on that later.

The movie’s structure was far more complex than the trailers implied, and anytime a movie offers more than a trailer promises, it’s a win. The story takes place on three planes of existence: reality, a subconscious realm and an even deeper level – a psychological battlefield. This Inception-esque layering was well done and easy to follow; plus, it gave Snyder free reign to, quite literally, do whatever the hell he wanted.

The subconscious level sees Baby Doll and her compatriots as prostitutes in a lavish bordello, run by the evil Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac). Isaac’s villainous portrayal was one of the best in the film, maybe even of recent movie memory. His pencil mustache and flamboyant panache belied his black heart, making his slow descent and loss of control even more enjoyable. The madame of the bordello, Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), was the perfect mix of seasoned mother-figure and hard-bitten taskmaster – heavy Polish accent and all. While these scenes house the major plot of the movie, it’s Baby Doll’s trance-like state that launches Sucker Punch into the fantastic.

Forced to dance for customers, Baby Doll is able to mesmerize her audience, giving her friends ample opportunity to collect a number of items needed for escape: a map, fire, a knife, and a key. As her eyes flutter shut and the dance takes over, Baby Doll is transported to fantastical worlds wrought with danger. What follows? A series of mind-warping, eye-gasmic, awesomeness: five beautiful girls fighting mechanized-Nazi-zombies in a biplane and zeppelin riddled WWII landscape; hordes of orcs and fire-breathing dragons in a besieged castle; massive, gatling gun wielding samurai warriors in a snow-swept monastery; and legions of gleaming robots aboard a high-speed hover train. Sound like a trip? You bet your ass.

Critics are complaining about Snyder’s gratuitous use of slow motion. Screw that. There could have been more. The action is so well choreographed, so visually entertaining, you want it to last for as long as possible. Go back and read the above paragraph again and tell me you don’t want to see that in glorious slow motion. Thought so.

Jena Malone and Abbie Cornish were the standout performers. As sisters Rocket and Sweet Pea, their relationship was the most solid and believable of the film, which, by the end, made perfect sense. And Scott Glenn as “The Wise Man” was perfect, his weathered frame taking on the roles of general, monk and yes, even bus driver. His pre-mission bits of wisdom (always prefaced with, “Oh, and one more thing…”) were quirky and sincere, helping craft one of the most memorable characters of the whole movie.

Three words: buy the soundtrack. From haunting covers (Sweet Dreams) to bone-jarring remixes (Army of Me) the music was the ultimate companion to the over-stimulation onscreen. It’s also worth noting that Baby Doll actress Emily Browning lends her vocal talents to three of the tracks as well – and she’s pretty good too.

Quick side note: those who are suddenly voicing concerns about the upcoming Superman reboot (reportedly titled Man of Steel) based on their opinion that Sucker Punch was sub-par…they need to calm down. Superman is hardly a Snyder original idea, and he’s shown in the past that he can knock an adaptation out of the ball park. And with Christopher Nolan involved, there should be no concerns…so take a deep breath naysayers…geez.

The Weasel: Emily Browning was rather drab and unaffecting as the lead character, Baby Doll. Her eyes, while wreathed with perfect eyelashes and bleached-blonde hair, were vacant, and her performance lacked the energy needed to match the film’s tone. And can someone please stop hiring Vanessa Hudgens? Hopefully after her ridiculous overacting as Blondie and her disaster of a film that was Beastly, this recently Zac-Efron-less “actress” will cease to invade screens, both small and large. Jamie Chung and John Hamm were criminally underutilized.

The critique that Sucker Punch moved along like a video game is warranted: collect item #1, collect item #2, etc. In the end, it lent the movie a familiar skeleton to drape its CGI trappings over, but was really neither here nor there.

The shift in focus away from Baby Doll at the end of the movie was the most unsettling, especially because the whole opening scene (one of the few scenes that take place in the real world) was centered around her. If it was meant to be a twist, it failed, although I think it was due to a lack of script editing more than anything else.

Was the plot groundbreaking? No. Did Emily Browning deliver an Oscar-worthy performance? No. Is there any rhyme or reason as to why Baby Doll sinks into a dance-trance and fights insane battles? Absolutely not. Should you care? Hell no.

4 Death Stars out of 5

What do you think? Did Sucker Punch live up to your expectations? Should Zack Snyder stick to adaptations, or did you enjoy his original story? What was your favorite fight scene? Share your thoughts in the comments!