A father and son. A man and a woman. A tech-savvy boy and the robot he discovered in a junkyard. A washed-up boxer and dreams of grandeur. Oddly enough, not much time is spent on the boy coping with the loss of his mother angle, but pretty much every other blatant attempt to provoke sympathy is somewhere to be found in Real Steel (Surprise, it’s a Disney film! – Wait, why aren’t you surprised?)
Also not surprising is that like cobbling together an actual robot whose carcass is found in a trash heap, the film is assembled from the spare parts of others that have come before it. Whether it’s shades of almost every Rocky installment, The Iron Giant, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, whatever reluctant parent Lifetime channel film you can think of, or even some musical notes composer Danny Elfman lifted from his own work on Good Will Hunting, the whole production is a hodgepodge of clichés, stereotypes and oft-repeated cinematic themes.
At the helm of it all is director Shawn Levy, responsible for such cinematic marvels as the Night at the Museum franchise (1 AND 2, don’t get excited), The Pink Panther reboot debacle, and the disappointingly flat Date Night. His ability to hammer home the blatantly obvious is on full display, culminated in this film during the final fight with a series of slow-motion, teary eyed looks between the major characters that bordered on nauseatingly cheesy (just a warning for the cinematically lactose intolerant).
On the plus side, the robots and their fighting look great. Sugar Ray Leonard helped out on the boxing side of things, giving all of the bouts a sense of strategy and not simply a heap of punch-counterpunch antics. On the visual side of things, animatronics supervisor John Rosengrant, whose team at Legacy Effects had worked on Iron Man and Terminator: Salvation, delivered detailed and exciting mechanical pugilists. Mixing and matching with CGI, what makes Real Steel succeed in regards to its core feature is that the robots feel like they have weight and presence, which if done solely via computers would likely not have come off right (i.e. Yoda in the Star Wars prequels).
The acting is on par with any other generic Disney sports movie. Hugh Jackman plays his role as a mix of Wolverine and his character from Swordfish (never though I’d mention that movie again). Evangeline Lilly gets to look pretty as she so often does and Dakota Goyo does his best to avoid the full Anakin Skywalker comparison (uncanny resemblance, robot building expertise, dead mommy issues). Supporting cast members like Kevin Durand and Anthony Mackie help to inject a little energy into the project. Though others come off as cartoonish, like the lovely Olga Fonda (no relation to Jane, Peter, or Henry) who was born in Russia but plays her Russian character so broadly and with such a noticeable accent I was expecting her to say “Moose and Squirrel” at every turn. Likewise, Karl Yune imbues his turn as a Japanese robot designer with the subtlety of a kid-friendly anime with its own card game.
Also working against things is a 2 hour-plus runtime. Having so many different themes to address bloats what should be a succinct and simple script that barely crosses the 90-minute mark. Seeing as it’s all completely formulaic and predictable, the tediousness of working through it all seems unnecessary. And bottom line, the target audience is 13 year-old boys or anyone who wants to see the cheesiest cinematic rendition of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots.
If that’s you, then I suppose Real Steel is up your alley and it gets a 2.5 out of 5 (the runtime knocking it down a peg). I was personally hoping for more of a “Robot Jox” vibe but if they had added a nationalism/post-WWIII theme, it may well have pushed the film towards the 3-hour mark and I had more than enough of what was on the screen as it stands.
Real Steel hits theaters on October 7, 2011 and is rated PG-13 for some violence, intense action and brief language.