Monday, 1 October 2012

Film Review | Real Steel (2011)

Hoping to answer the almost certainly seldom-asked question "What would a cross between Rocky and Transformers look like?", Real Steel aims firmly and steadily for the family action market in a way that isn't seen too often in contemporary cinema. But whilst the action may be more hit than miss, the real problem is in the morals on display here.

Hugh Jackman is Charlie Kenton, a former professional boxer living in the near-future USA where robot boxing has replaced the human version of the sport. Charlie is struggling to make a living through acquiring robot boxers and pitting them in fights, usually losing through a combination of arrogance and haste. However, Charlie's fortunes appear to turn for the better once his estranged young son Max (Dakota Goyo) ends up in his care, and the two discover new hope in a discarded robot fighter named Atom.

What Real Steel does well works pleasingly enough. The fight scenes, although occasionally feeling too much like footage from a video game, are entertaining if at times unspectacular, with director Shawn Levy never falling into the oversaturated action mess presented all too often by Mr. Bay in the Transformers franchise. The world of robot boxing is enjoyably realised, feeling like a cross between UFC and Scrapheap Challenge, and although technology is clearly nowhere near advancing as quickly as the near-future setting would require, I never questioned the universe the characters inhabit.

The performances are a real mixed bag here, with Jackman firmly on autopilot, only threatening to show some real charm in the film's final act. Goyo ranges from passable to really quite irritating with some hackneyed "kid who behaves older than he is" tropes from yesteryear thrown in for bad measure here and there. Jackman and Goyo never truly gel until the film's climax, with some particularly jarring scenes near the start of the film. The strongest performance here comes from Evangeline Lilly as Charlie's childhood-friend-cum-love-interest Bailey, whose time on screen is genuinely enjoyable although the character disappointingly becomes marginalised, her arc left hanging, as the film progresses.

The real issues with Real Steel come from its moral compass, which seems to swing as wildly in the wrong direction as that owned by one Captain Jack Sparrow. Sparrow, in fact, provides a fitting example of a successful family action hero's character arc: it's expected that, like Sparrow, the protagonist will undergo a process of change from selfish/arrogant/alone to selfless/humble/surrounded by friends and/or family. However, Jackson's character here is just too despicable for a large part of the film to the point that it's very hard to get behind him at all. His first action towards Max after discovering he is now in his charge is to sell him. As in for money. A fact which he also doesn't do a lot to hide from Max. Not long after this, after Max has almost fallen to his death in a junkyard, Charlie proceeds to leave his son in said junkyard for a whole night in a rainstorm. With these actions seemingly going unpunished in any way either morally or through the law, Charlie remained for a significant portion of the film a character to whom I neither established nor wanted any connection, empathetic or otherwise.

Despite myself and the film's faults, I found myself genuinely engrossed in Real Steel's finale. Even though the way in which the film had arrived at this point was decidedly iffy, the spirit of Balboa vs. Creed could be keenly felt, and I ended up drawn in and even rooting for Charlie, Max and Atom. But, after the credits roll, it's hard to forget the mish-mash of acting quality and immoral plot threads that have led up to the film's climax. Real Steel ends up falling somewhere uncomfortably in the middle ground of mediocrity: by no means awful in some ways, but unforgivably so in others.


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