Silver Screen: Real Steel *
Despite its multi-million-dollar gloss and action-movie aesthetic, Real Steel is actually based on a short story by suspense master Richard Matheson that was turned into a particularly excellent episode of The Twilight Zone (titled simply “Steel”). In the Twilight Zone version, the sport of boxing has been outlawed for being too violent and the human contenders have been replaced with robots. An aging, down-on-his-luck ex-boxer played by the great Lee Marvin owns and manages a robot, and he'll lose everything if he can't win the next fight. But when his decrepit ‘bot breaks down, he has no choice but to step into the ring himself. Marvin's beleaguered but gutsy performance underscores the common Twilight Zone theme of the persistence of the human spirit.
Something vaguely similar happens near the end of Real Steel. This time it's Hugh Jackman playing the washed-up boxer turned robot handler, and his mechanical pugilist avatar is pitted against the metal equivalent of Apollo Creed. In one of the movie's many astonishingly predictable twists, Jackman's battered robot malfunctions during the fight; of course, we the audience members know that the robot comes equipped with a shadow function that lets Jackman control it manually by doing the boxing himself. And so the big climax is set up, with Jackman essentially playing Wii boxing on the sidelines as the two robots pound the oil out of each other. In the modern take on the Twilight Zone story, it's not the human spirit that persists, but the ability to play videogames really well.
Sitting through Real Steel is in fact a lot like watching somebody play videogames. The robot-fighting sequences, when at long last they finally do occur, are choreographed and digitally rendered competently but unimpressively, and they convey all the verve of a cut scene from a mediocre Playstation 3 game. When the robot fighting in your movie about fighting robots is little, far between, and lackluster, you've got yourself a problem. (There's currently a TV commercial for DirecTV that captures the kinetic excitement of machine-on-machine combat far better.)
Still, this kind of junk entertainment rarely sets a high bar for itself, and it does, despite myriad flaws, feature fighting robots, so it doesn't disappoint entirely. But instead of going for fast, cheapish, and fun kids’ entertainment, Real Steel strains for summer blockbuster status by stretching to a grueling two hours and seven minutes and piling on the Steven Speilberg-produced schmaltz.
Jackman's gruff Charlie Kenton finds out he has a son only after the kid is orphaned following his mother's death. The kid (Dakota Goyo) is of course written exactly like an adult, which is what in Hollywood passes for precociousness. He convinces his deadbeat pop to help him fix up an old clunker of a robot and enter it on the circuit, with a little help from superfluous love interest Evangeline Lilly, who, in a hysterically improbable subplot, is struggling to keep her beloved father's old boxing gym open even though nobody boxes anymore.
Real Steel never once takes a surprising turn, although it does take plenty of stupid detours, namely some underground robot-fighting venues that are seemingly pretty above ground, and are stocked with the kind of screeching mohawks-and-anarchy-tattoos punk villains not seen since their heyday as bad guys in 1980s vigilante movies.
The obvious questions posed by this astonishingly underbaked script are legion. How come 2027 looks exactly like 2011 but with thinner iPhones? How is it that twelve-foot-tall, fully automated and specialized robots only cost $50,000 each? How did an eleven-year-old kid learn how to be both a computer tech and an electrician?
Yeah, it's a silly kids’ movie, but nothing this expensive and massively hyped should be so shoddily conceived. At every turn it implores viewers to take it seriously as a real movie, yet it never returns the favor by making even token efforts to help viewers suspend disbelief or even tolerate the parade of cliché s. It may be a PG-13 movie, but it's not well-suited for anyone younger than age eleven.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter @bmillercomedy.