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REAL STEEL
Author: JoAnne Hyde
October 7, 2011
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SYNOPSIS: A gritty, white-knuckle, action ride set in the near-future where the sport of boxing has gone high-tech, Real Steel stars Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a washed-up fighter who lost his chance at a title when 2000-pound, 8-foot-tall steel robots took over the ring. Now nothing but a small-time promoter, Charlie earns just enough money piecing together low-end bots from scrap metal to get from one underground boxing venue to the next. When Charlie hits rock bottom, he reluctantly teams up with his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) to build and train a championship contender. As the stakes in the brutal, no-holds-barred arena are raised, Charlie and Max, against all odds, get one last shot at a comeback

Hugh Jackman has described his new film Real Steel in interviews as “Rocky meets Transformers,”and I think he’s on to something there. Like Rocky, it has the underdog comeback thing going on, and like Transformers, the machines are the real stars of the film. The story’s a little trite – you’ve seen it more than once before – but it will please its target audience. In fact, as I left the theater, I saw a father and son enthusiastically play-sparring in the parking lot. Kids will love this film, but it will entertain parents, too. Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum and sequel) brings us the tale of Charlie Kenton (Jackman), a former boxer who now travels on the Robot Boxing circuit since human boxing has been eliminated in favor of the more brutal robot kind.

It turns out that he has a son, Max (Dakota Goyo), from a long ago relationship, whose mother has died. Under Texas law, Charlie is listed as the next of kin and is due to “inherit” the boy. Max’s aunt Debra (Hope Davis) wants full custody, and Charlie sees a way to score some cash for a new bot. He makes a secret deal with Debra’s husband Marvin (James Rebhorn) to keep the boy for the summer while Marvin and Debra are off to vacation in Italy and then sign over custody…for $100,000. Marvin will pay $50,000 immediately and another $50,000 upon returning from Italy. Charlie then uses the money to buy Noisy Boy, a well-known if older bot.

Charlie knows almost nothing about his son. He doesn’t even know how old the boy is -- he’s 11 by the way. But, as Charlie will soon learn, Max is a chip off the old block.

Due to some bad luck and some bad decisions, Charlie ends up losing Noisy Boy, and this is when the real story begins. While snooping around in a restricted junk yard looking for parts to repair what’s left of Noisy Boy, Charlie and Max come across a buried robot. Charlie’s not receptive to “saving” it because it’s a first generation sparring robot. Max rescues it and cleans and restores it. He learns that its name is Atom, and it has a shadow function. Most of the fighting robots are controlled using a console, but some have voice-command capacity. Atom has both, but he also has the shadow function, so he can imitate moves. In Max’s case, that’s dancing. In Charlie’s case, it’s boxing.

I’ll leave the story of Atom’s rise to challenge the all-time champion robot Zeus to you film-goers to discover. Let me just say that Zeus is owned by a less than scrupulous woman, Farra Lemkova (Olga Fonda), and programmed by a reclusive Japanese genius Tak Mashido (Karl Yune). Zeus is undefeated because Mashido has given him the ability to anticipate an opponent’s moves and adjust accordingly.

Sugar Ray Leonard coached Hugh Jackman on boxing moves and choreographed the robot’s fights -- which is a huge plus for the action sequences.

As always, Jackman delivers a skillful performance and is particularly convincing in the fight sequences. Dakota Goyo brings an appealing intelligence to his character, Max, as well as a welcome bit of sassiness. Evangeline Lilly is positively radiant as Bailey and I wish she’d had more screen time. Atom, portrayed in performance-capture by Kevin Dorman, is the real star of the film, though.

In interviews, Sugar Ray Leonard stated that he gave each robot its own personality and fighting style, and I believe that is the film’s greatest strength. They make their entrances with the same bravado and fanfare as human boxers do today and the excitement is contagious.

REAL STEEL’s only weakness is the worn-out story line. However, it’s a good film to see with your kid -- nothing too offensive in it, and you’ll have fun watching it.

GRADE: B+

JoAnne Hyde Likes film.
She likes to write.
So she combines those two loves by reviewing films for BOF

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