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Entries in Real Steel [2011] (1)

Tuesday
Oct112011

Real Steel (2011)

Ones and Heroes

For years, mainstream filmmakers have struggled to recapture the magic of the 1980s. "Magic of the 1980s" probably made some of you laugh, but most of modern pop culture is a booming nostalgia market that's ripe for the tapping--as evidenced by this decade's glut of remakes. Original hits like The Wedding Singer and Hot Tub Time Machine parodied Reagan-era comedies by fetishizing its music and fashion--all the while smirking with ironic hindsight. On the horror front, Hatchet, The House of the Devil, and Hostel stepped back from the ADD-addled CGI fake-outs of contemporary horror to focus on the deliberate pacing and over-the-top practical gore effects of the VHS heyday.

To my mind, only The House of the Devil succeeded in its mission, thanks to director Ti West's keen understanding of what made the 80s so special to millions of film buffs. Whereas we may look back and see only excess, shoulder pads, and DeLoreans, the heroes of classic films from that era often struggled against materialism. There was very much a spirit of rugged individualism at play, a sense that the little guy could triumph over the faceless, grinning beasts of corporatism and communism.

A second category, equally as popular, was the well-to-do wiseguy messing with a system that threatened to consume him. The main characters in Back to School, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Top Gun, though not all millionaires, certainly had deeper pockets than the gang from Porky's and Gremlins--but shared a moral solidarity and disdain for authority that made them relatable to audiences both middle class and highbrow. Sure, The House of the Devil is a horror movie about a college girl who house-sits for demonic cultists, but in its every detail lay the conflicting enticements of Yuppie-ism and activism.

Which brings me, finally, to the film at hand, Shawn Levy's Real Steel. Not only is this one of my favorites of the year, it is also the perfect example of what so many others have tried and failed to do in evoking the 1980s spirit. In part, Levy does this by incorporating elements from Sylvester Stallone's Over the Top and Rocky IV, but mostly it's the lack of cheeky cynicism in writers John Gatins' screenplay (based in part on a short story by sci-fi staple Richard Matheson) that instantly evokes the plucky determination of what many consider a more innocent time.

Real Steel also creates a wholly unexpected future America that enveloped and astounded me at just about every turn. Set in 2025, the movie stars Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a former boxer with a promising future whose career was snuffed out when technology replaced human fighters with real-life Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. Now he travels the country, pitting sad, salvaged droids against better robots (and even actual bulls) in underground matches for food and gas money. As envisioned by Levy and Gatins, the future looks a lot like the present, but with more poverty, pollution, and high-tech distractions.

While evading a vicious debtor, Charlie learns that the son he abandoned years ago has become fully orphaned. He shows up for a custody hearing to sign his rights away to the boy's wealthy aunt and step-uncle, and winds up cutting a deal to take little Max (Dakota Goyo) on the road for the summer in exchange for $100,000 (as opposed to releasing him to the state). Of course, father and son don't get along. Max is a brat, but not obnoxiously so--he acts as the sassy conscience of his deadbeat, scumbag dad.

With the help of lifelong friend/ex-girlfriend, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), Charlie buys a refurbished fighting 'bot and takes Max along to its big, breakout match. Max insists that Charlie offer their fighter up for the lower-profile battles so that they can see what it's made of, make a little bit of money, and split. Charlie ignores him and talks his way into the title fight--where his nuts-and-bolts avatar gets smashed to pieces.

Once again broke and desperate, Charlie and Max break into a scrap yard to find something that they can either rebuild or infuse into their existing, broken heaps. Max stumbles on an old sparring robot called "Atom", and coaxes dad into fixing him up. You can pretty much map out the rest of the picture from here, especially if you've seen the trailers: Charlie and Max work their way up the circuit-board circuit, eventually coming face to face with world-champion Zeus--a black-metal monster with borderline artificial intelligence designed by pouty Japanese mastermind Tak Mashido (Karl Yune). The only surprise, plot-wise, is how Real Steel ends; it plays to a fighting-movie tradition, but not necessarily the one that springs to mind right away.

Though the story and character beats will be familiar to anyone over the age of twenty-five, Real Steel feels fresh, thanks in large part to the fantastic lead trio of Jackman, Goyo, and Lilly. I can't recall another instance of chemistry this good, this natural, in a genre film. Jackman wrenches a likable, moving character out of the melting-hearted hard-case cliche. Rather than getting by on great looks, he walks right up to the line of actorly sincerity and tiptoes into the kind of shrugging showiness a crowd-pleaser like this requires. Lilly gives a heartfelt performance as the girl who had to break away from they guy she loved, rather than join him on a downward spiral of self-pity and corruption; but she never gave up on him, nor on her feelings. She acts as a mother figure to Max, nurturing the positive aspects she once saw in his father and steering him away from the bad.

Max is the key to Real Steel, and Dakota Goyo is a real discovery. I was only briefly distracted by his resemblance to both Jake Lloyd and Anton Yelchin and soon found myself in love with his pluck and smarts. I'd imagined the kids of the future to be even less tuned-in than they are today, but Max is resilient and outspoken, with a sensitivity that drives the picture. Max pushes Charlie to get over himself and do something great with his life, in the back-of-his-head hopes that he'll evolve into an actual father. It's a deceptively complex role that shows Goyo to be an impressive actor, not just an impressive child actor.

Wait, isn't this a big, dumb robot movie? Nope. Not even close. The Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots jokes began flying ever since the Real Steel teaser debuted earlier this year (hell, I made one myself just a bit ago). But if you take the colorful machines out of the equation, you still have a classic boxing movie and a powerful father/son drama. Don't worry, though: there's plenty of awesome pummeling to be found here.

The effects in this movie are simply astounding. The robot designs are crisp and interesting--exactly the look that Michael Bay should have employed for his Transformers saga. Most impressively, they were designed to be boxers, meaning no special sliding compartments with hidden buzz saws or lasers. Their only advantages are varying degrees of hydraulic fists and articulation in the lower limbs that promote agility in the ring. I haven't looked up how exactly the effects team pulled off these beautiful cyber-creatures--how much of the performances were motion-captured, how much of the robots were actually built versus being modeled and animated in a computer--mostly because I'm not ready to peel back that curtain yet. Watching the film, I full believed in the reality of Levy and Gatins' 2025.

Real Steel is a smart effects extravaganza. If this future world is defined by Blade Runner-style skyscrapers, we never see it. This is a rural picture, with lots of golden fields and tree-lined horizons. It's quiet in a way that I didn't expect, with the serenity of Charlie and Max's cross-country adventures contrasting with the climactic high-tech-arena show.

I can't speak for anyone else, but Real Steel is the first movie I've seen in awhile that rekindled the joy of watching the earnest sci-fi fantasies of my youth. In this era of irony and snark (you can't see it, but I'm raising my hand), it's refreshing to see a filmmaker reclaim the wild, adventurous spirit of the time in which he grew up. Intentionally or not, Shawn Levy has delivered a perfect slice of nostalgia in his unapologetically sincere and rousing picture.