If you're going to write about films with any kind of objectivity, one of things it behooves you to do is to try and separate the film itself from the context in which you see it – you shouldn't let the lousy sound quality, or the poorly-racked screen or inadequate rake of the theatre get in the way – even the French tourists behind you talking noisily all the way through should not be a factor when it comes to giving your considered opinion.
Obviously this is not always as easy as it sounds, and most weeks the release of a movie in which Hugh Jackman must bond with his long-estranged young son by training a robot as a boxer would be greeted by a cry of 'What fresh hell is this?!?' But following my recent experience at the hands of Paul Anderson and his minions, I'll try anything to get a cheap popcorn rush, even if that means going to see Shawn Levy's Real Steel.
Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, an ex-fighter now wheeling and dealing in the lower reaches of the robot boxing circuit of a near-future America. He is feckless and irresponsible, to the despair of old friend-and-maybe-a-bit-more Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), but more importantly his numerous creditors. But luck smiles on Charlie when he learns he is the owner of an eleven-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), whose maternal relatives are very keen to adopt him. A deal is struck where Charlie signs away his custodial rights in exchange for money to buy a new robot – but part of the arrangement is that Charlie has to look after Max for the summer, something neither of them is very pleased about.
Things do not work out with the new robot, and, on his uppers, Charlie is forced to used an ancient old machine salvaged by Max which appears to have been welded together out of spare plumbing supplies. Can their new fighter Atom shock the world and challenge for the title belt? And can Charlie and Max build some kind of father-son bond?
If you can't guess the answer to both of these questions, then all I can say is – Hello. A cinema is a big dark room where moving pictures are projected onto a wall, normally telling a story – because you have clearly just escaped from an Amish colony or somewhere similar. There are films I've been watching for the second or third time which were less predictable than Real Steel.
The big danger for me as far as this film is concerned is to compare it too closely with Steel, a very different adaptation of the same Richard Matheson short story which aired on The Twilight Zone in 1963. In that version, Lee Marvin plays the lead role, and when his boxing android blows a gasket just before a fight he has to go into the ring himself against an opponent he has no chance of defeating. It's a simple story but it does say something about the courage and determination of a boxer that rings true, and the conclusion genuinely surprised me.
Well, there's nothing like that here – we get the archetypal father-son bonding story welded effectively enough to the archetypal boxing-underdog story, all slathered in a gloss of CGI-heavy no-brainer SF. And it looks very slick, and tells the story proficiently, but that's really all it does.
The problem is mainly that the emotional story at the centre of the film is trite and hackneyed and quite simply doesn't ring true. I think this may be down to Jackman – hugely charismatic he undoubtedly is, but it increasingly seems to me that he is an actor of extremely limited range. At the start of the film Charlie is a loser on the skids, who sells his own son without a second thought, and Hugh Jackman isn't convincing for a second. He does a certain kind of laconic toughness and integrity very well, but outside this comfort zone the quality of his performance drops off dramatically. That said, no-one in this movie is really able to distinguish them, which is hardly surprising given the material they have to work with.
Real Steel is arguably a good fifteen minutes too long as well – it's a loooong time before the man-and-boy-and-crapbot-take-on-the-world plot really gets into gear, and the film seems to be trying to be a sprawling emotional epic rather than the stripped-down genre movie that would suit it much better. As a result, Atom's ascension to the robot boxing big-time seems a little too rapid, with not enough incidental fights along the way. (We don't get the scene where success goes to Atom's CPU and he's caught disporting himself in a hotel room with a couple of spin-dryers high on WD-40, either – maybe this will be in the sequel.)
The actual robot fights are the only time the movie really comes to life, with plenty of whangs and clongs and ka-dongs per minute. The import of boxing cliches and imagery into an SF context is amusingly done and the CGI itself is state of the art, or very close to it. And such is the power of the underdog-makes-good story that you really don't care how cliched it all is, or that every fight has basically the same plot – Atom gets paddled around the ring for a while before pluckily battling his way back into it. Something which is cheesily uplifting is still uplifting on some level.
But anyway. This is not a bad film, but certainly not a very good one either. If as much thought and effort had gone into the script as the robot designs and choreography, then it might have been a different story. As it is, Real Steel has a lot in common with its robotic protagonist – some signs of having a good heart, but overall really just mechanical.