The venerable Alphamonkey is too preoccupied at Fort Awesome to make many advance screenings, but last week he joined the Cap’n and yours truly to catch Real Steel. I was confused as to why this would be one of the few screenings he had decided to check out, and asked why. “It’s got fighting robots!” he argued, and I realized I sort of agreed with that excitement. Real Steal is literally about boxing robots, a story so pointless, it sounds like a one-off joke you might hear come out of Comic Book Guy. A movie with that log line is starting at the absolute bottom – it’s so stupid, it just might work in a weird reverse sense of the word “good;” and even if that’s not the case, there’s no where for the film to go but up.
And indeed, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you that Real Steel is a bad movie. But still, it’s pretty bad.
Actually I was lying when I implied that Real Steel was primarily about fighting robots, the A-story here is between an estranged Father and Son finally spending time with each other, and getting over the Father’s shittiness to forge a family.
That’s a fairly typical storyline for Real Steel‘s director, Shawn Levy. In the past, Levy’s been responsible for Cheaper by the Dozen and the Night at the Museum films – movies that are very well handled, but have aspirations no higher than to be the most Vanilla of all things. Levy’s batting in the same wheel house on Real Steel – he’s trying to tell an inspirational family story here, but about all he ever does to sell the relationships are slow tracking shots of characters smiling real big.
The other is the presence of Hugh Jackman in the lead of the Father. Jackman is the kind of A-Lister with real, hearty charisma that can make any role work. For most actors of similar make-up, their trajectories would have led to smaller films built around their part as a vehicle to Oscar Gold. So it’s perplexing that he would take on this thin piece of plexiglass.
But thank goodness he went with it, because without Jackman’s heart at the middle of the film, none of it would take. The only other characters of any importance are played by a child actor that reminiscent of Jake Lloyd, and an absent Evangeline Lily. Jackman’s given total schlock to work with, but he brings integrity to it and makes it work in a way only a true Hollywood Star can.
The film started off on an unexpectedly strong foot. Before meeting up with his son, Jackman’s character drives a semi across the midwest, cutting through the plains to carnival where he’ll try to hustle a few bucks. When his plans go south, he’s ready with another scheme to make back his money, albeit a scheme that’s even shakier than the last. He’s on a destructive tear, and he’s the one paying for it.
That, that’s a movie. That worked. That made me want to watch. And then a kid walked in and trained a robot to get rid of his Daddy Issues.
This first act aside, Real Steel isn’t much more than an empty cheesefest with a few good scenes with Jackman and cool tall automatons. But after Levy dresses it up with a shiney sheen in this near-future tale (the photography goes perfectly with digital projection), the film is honestly fine. Not without problems, but nothing so egregious that you can’t watch. I don’t know that Alphamonkey’s enthusiasm for the film ended up being justified, but I can’t totally prove him wrong.
For a slightly more positive take on the film check out Cap’n Carrot’s review