Film and TV

Reviews For The Easily Distracted:
Real Steel

Title: Real Steel

Seriously? This Is A Real Movie? I know what you mean. Until actually sitting down to watch it last night, I was convinced my memories of previews were the result of bad dreams brought on by one too many late night Stouffer's French Bread Pizzas.

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: One-and-a-half Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots out of five. If I rated movies by the number of times I "facepalmed," it'd get a 10.

Brief Plot Synopsis: Down on his luck boxing promoter builds robot that could be a contendah.

Tagline: "Champions aren't born. They're made."

Better Tagline: "We're betting none of you remember Robot Jox."

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) lost his shot at boxing glory when the sport was taken over by robots in 2020. Scraping by as a low-end promoter, he ends up pairing with his estranged son to to build and train a scrappy (sorry) underdog that may finally give Kenton his chance for a title.

"Critical" Analysis:I think the problem with Hugh Jackman is we all desperately want to like his movies because Jackman himself is so damn likeable. In his public appearances he's personable and easygoing, and as an entertainer he's no slouch (those abs don't hurt either, am I right ladies?).

But his movie choices are often mystifying. I can chalk up crap like Kate and Leopold and Someone Like You to it being early in Jackman's career, and he's mostly been solid as Logan/Wolverine in the X-Men series, even the bad ones. But for every The Prestige there's a Deception. For every Fountain an Australia. You're a movie star now, Hugh, you can afford to be a little more discriminating.

That said, I can't entirely blame Jackman for Real Steel, I blame Dreamworks, because Steven Spielberg's imprint is all over the movie, and what could have been a heartwarming story about a perpetual loser finding redemption in fatherhood (with fighting robots) is instead a pile of cliches and shameless sentimentality. With fighting robots.

You may not be aware that Real Steel is a kids' movie. I certainly wasn't. None of the promotional materials even show Kenton's son Max (Dakota Goyo: as my moviegoing companion said, "That's a robot name if I ever heard one"), and we barely glimpse him in the trailer, but he's basically a co-lead. Max is the one who finds Atom, the "barely generation 2" sparring bot, and it's Max who puts his grade school electical and mechanical engineering degrees to good use by refurbishing Atom and turning him into a challenger. Hell, it's Max who finally gets his emotionally fragile father to "go the distance" (to invoke another father-son sports movie) and help Atom in the title fight. And perhaps a better actor would've pulled it off, but Goyo is basically Jake Lloyd 2.0.

So instead of something along the lines of Rocky or, hell, Rocky III, what we end up with is Over the Top crossed with E.T.. Goyo's less annoying that Stallone's son in that movie, but it's close.

Is Atom supposed to be sentient? Who knows? It's one of many interesting tidbits director Shawn Levy briefly dangles in front of the audience (including the possibility that Charlie isn't Max's real father), then proceeds to ignore for the rest of the film. And I expected so much more from the director of the Cheaper by the Dozen and Pink Panther remakes.

But don't let Jackman off the hook, plenty of the responsibility for Real Steel's failure lies on his chiseled shoulders. With a New York accent straight out of a Bowery Boys flick, Charlie is a wholly unsympathetic character. He runs out on his debts (one of the movie's sole bright spots is reliable movie psycho Kevin Durand as Kenton's old nemesis), appears to learn nothing from years of failure (he acquires one of the top fighting bots in the world, then gets it destroyed while showboating during a match), and systematically takes advantage of the one woman who appears to inexplicably give a shit about him (Kate Beckinsdale).

Oh, and then there's the whole "abandon your kid for ten years then agree to sell him to his aunt for $100,000" thing.

But for all it's faults (the "Americana" vibe wears thin quickly, especially considering this is supposed to be 2027), I can say there's plenty of robot action. We get to see five bouts, including one in which a robot fights a bull. And the 'bots themselves are all pretty terrific, it's the humans I didn't care for.

See It/Rent It/Skip It: If you're solely in the company of adults, I say skip it. Kids, however, will love the ample robot fisticuffs.

Real Steel is in theaters today. If it only had a heart.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar