Real Steel: Melodrama Starring Hugh Jackman

The primary attraction in “Real Steel” is Hugh Jackman, a rather appealing actor often stuck in mediocre pictures (“Wolverine” anyone?).  In his latest melodrama, he play Charlie Kenton, a former boxer turned robot handler, who is down on his luck in every conceivable and predictable way.  For starters, he is a deadbeat dad to boot.

Trailer: www.emanuellevy.com/wp-admin/media.php?attachment_id=17145&action=edit

Physically, Jackman still looks great, and he works hard to pull this one off.  Unfortunately, it is an unlikable, overly familiar part in too many respects, a performance contained in a technically polished but superficial package.

Charlie treats everyone who might admire or love him—especially his long-lost son, Max (Dakota Goyo), and girlfriend, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly of the TV show “Lost”)—with disdain bordering on abuse.

He is even willing to sell his son to new parents for the sum of $100,000. “You’ve been working with those robots so long, you’ve become one,” Max’s aunt (Hope Davis) complains.

Director Shawn Levy of the “Night at the Museum” movies counts on audiences knowing from the outset exactly what Charlie’s character arc is going to be. Underneath the arrogance, he is no doubt a softie who is going to fall head over heels for the adorable son he has never spent time with until now.

Max, who has a similar look and feel to Anakin Skywalker in “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” winds up tagging along with his initially displeased dad on the robot fight circuit. The boy’s mother has died, which forces Charlie into growing into the father and man he was always meant to be.

Too bad for this sweet kid, who is saddled with the unenviable task of having to be his difficult dad’s conscience. “Do you even think about the things you do before you do them?” asks Max.

Enter a robot named Atom that the boy discovers by chance, repairs, and promotes as a fighter. Atom, who looks like he was put together in the 1950s rather than, as the film says, in 2014, has the selfless dedication and determination of a rescue dog. All the heart that Charlie lacks and Max seeks is inside this beat-up robot, who never says a word.

Atom becomes the real star of “Real Steel,” outshining his human counterparts, but it is actually long into the movie when he makes his advent.

First, Charlie has to work his way through the more advanced robots Ambush, who is felled by a bull at a robot rodeo, and Noisy Boy, an expensive Asian model who turns out to be weaker than his formidable appearance.

It is on a night mission to steal old robot parts from a massive scrap yard that Max falls down a cliff and is saved by Atom’s arm poking out of the mud. When Charlie rushes down to complete the rescue, he and his son begin to bond at last, and their new life starts with Atom, who turns out to be a winner in every fight he enters.

There is something magical about Atom that is often alluded to but never clarified. He is smarter than any other “generation two” robot—perhaps much smarter—and may be on some kind of holy mission to bring Charlie and Max together.

The film’s strangest scene has Atom becoming entranced with his own image in a mirror, as Levy cuts back and forth between Atom and his reflection. The narrative point of this is never made clear.

Levy handles the intense fight sequences with zeal. The final battle—a David-and-Goliath matchup between Atom and the world champion, Zeus—is exciting in the way of classic boxing showdowns from throughout Hollywood history.

But the director fares less well with the character-driven scenes. The first meeting of Charlie and Max, where they are sizing each other up, is awkwardly staged, requiring substantial suspension of disbelief.

All the scenes between Charlie and Bailey fall flat, with weak dialogue by John Gatins not helping things. “You’re your problem, Charlie,” she tells him, as if this is a major revelation.

The science-fiction premise of this film is intriguing but shakily executed: people have gotten sick of watching human boxing because robot boxing is more violent and thus more entertaining. It has become a huge phenomenon and very big business, permeating all of American culture.

The filmmakers have thus attempted to expand the Flesh Fair sequence from Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.” (2001)—in which bloodthirsty crowds gathered to watch robots being destroyed—into an entire movie. The robots of “Real Steel,” however, are more “Transformers” than “A.I.” (Spielberg, by the way, is attached to “Real Steel” as an executive producer.)

The filmmakers’ decision to set the film in the near future (possibly the 2020s, but this is never clarified) could have been a great opportunity for them to have fun imagining technological advances and lifestyle changes. But the future in “Real Steel” is so half-baked and ill conceived that it calls into question why they even bothered.

This is supposedly ten or more years down the road from now, and while robotics have progressed by leaps and bounds, everything else has pretty much stayed the same. There are glimpses of cool new cell phones and personal computers, and Charlie drives around in a weird green truck for transporting robots, but meanwhile people are still listening to the same old Eminem songs, drinking the same old Dr. Pepper (there is a lot of Dr. Pepper placement in this movie), reading the same old Wired magazine, and sporting the same old 1980s fashions.

“Real Steel” could have been a serious contender, but it lacks that creative spark.

Cast

Charlie Kenton – Hugh Jackman

Max – Dakota Goyo

Bailey Tallet – Evangeline Lilly

Finn – Anthony Mackie

Ricky – Kevin Durand

Aunt Debra – Hope Davis

Marvin – James Rebhorn

Tak Mashido – Karl Yune

Farra Lemkova – Olga Fonda

Credits

A Touchstone Picture release.

Directed by Shawn Levy.

Written by John Gatins.

Produced by Don Murphy, Susan Montford, and Shawn Levy.

Cinematography, Mauro Fiore.

Editing, Dean Zimmerman.

Original Music, Danny Elfman.

Running time: 127 minutes.