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With: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand, Hope Davis, James Rebhorn, Marco Ruggeri, Karl Yune, Olga Fonda
Written by: John Gatins, based on a story by Dan Gilroy, Jeremy Leven, and upon a short story by Richard Matheson
Directed by: Shawn Levy
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence, intense action and brief language
Running Time: 127
Date: 09/06/2011

Real Steel (2011)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Bot Shots

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The first thing that's unexpected about Real Steel is that the robot fighting is so cool. The movie takes place in the future, where real, human boxing has been outlawed, and so now robot brawls have taken over as entertainment. Humans operate the "bots" with remote controls. The visual effects are a slick combination of real robots and CGI, and -- especially on the new Blu-Ray release -- the result is gloriously seamless. (The FX were justly nominated for an Oscar, up against the drastically inferior Transformers: Dark of the Moon.)

The second thing that's unexpected is the father-son relationship in the story. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is the hothead, robot-operating hero. Charlie should have an advantage in the ring; he was trained as a real, human boxer back in the old days. Unfortunately, Charlie is also immature, impulsive, and a gambler. As often as he wins, he gets his bots destroyed and loses tons of money.

Usually in these kinds of stories, the hero suddenly finds himself saddled with Ultimate Responsibility: raising a kid. Usually the kid is sweet and causes the hero to find his own humanity. The hero does find his humanity here, but the kid is not so sweet. The kid, Max (Dakota Goyo), is smart as a whip. He knows as much about boxing as Charlie does, and he sniffs out Charlie's lies and evasions before Charlie can even say them out loud.

This is the most refreshing thing about Real Steel: there are no sitcom-style lies to further the plot. The two characters must deal with each other on a level of honesty. Basically Charlie bargains with his wealthy sister-in-law (Hope Davis) and her husband (James Rebhorn) for a wad of cash to buy a new robot, and to keep Max for the summer, before he gives up custody forever.

And so their relationship gets off on the wrong foot. They argue a lot, and during one of these arguments -- at a junkyard -- Max discovers the remains of an old sparring robot, Atom. Though he was mean to take punches, he was not meant for real fights. Max and Charlie predictably team up to get the robot working again, and the robot gets its shot, Rocky-style. In a nice touch, this bot has a feature that allows it to mimic a nearby human, allowing Charlie to actually box from the sidelines.

Evangeline Lilly co-stars in a very old character type; she's Bailey Tallet, the pretty daughter of Charlie's original trainer. These two obviously have a huge crush on one another, but neither knows how to broach the subject. Despite the age of this creaky device, the actors make it work with some nice nervous energy. Jackman is especially good here; he seems ideally suited to this type of role, it's physical but also upbeat.

Real Steel is "based in part upon a short story" by Richard Matheson, one of my all-time favorite writers, who wrote for "The Twilight Zone" and whose tales have also inspired The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), The Last Man on Earth (1964), Duel (1971), The Omega Man (1971), Somewhere in Time (1980), What Dreams May Come (1998), Stir of Echoes (1999), I Am Legend (2007) and The Box (2009). I am still working on tracking down the original story -- it was recently re-published in a movie tie-in paperback -- but I can only imagine that only the robot boxing conceit was Matheson's and that the father-son idea came from the screenwriters.

The director here is Shawn Levy, a man with an inauspicious, impersonal career that includes Cheaper by the Dozen 2 (2005), Night at the Museum (2006), What Happens in Vegas (2008), and The Pink Panther 2 (2009). But while he has no taste for comedy -- except for the very cute Date Night (2010) -- he does have a certain kind of warmth, and his real talent appears to lie in action movies like this one. His fight scenes are clear and exciting, and even though the movie is 127 minutes, it never feels too long; it moves well. I hope Levy continues along this path.

Overall, Real Steel may not be a masterpiece, but it's a movie that I would be happy to watch again, perhaps someday with my son when he gets older. The Blu-Ray release from Touchstone and Dreamworks is absolutely top-notch; there couldn't be a better way to watch these particular FX. Extras include a director's commentary track, bloopers, deleted and extended scenes, and various featurettes, including one with Sugar Ray Leonard, who was the movie's fight consultant.

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