Some movies have the ability to start out with great pedigree then succumb to the nature of being cannibalized by Hollywood. For instance, say a film features two quality producers in the likes of both Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. Next, add in the fact that the film being adapted is based on a dystopian short story by none other than Richard Matheson. And finally, say the adaptations story is credited to Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy) and Jeremy Leven (Don Juan DeMarco, The Legend of Bagger Vance). This is only some of the behind-the-scenes talent involved with Real Steel, but don’t get your hopes up just yet.
An official adaptation of a Rock’em Sock’em Robots film somehow just feels inevitable with Peter Berg bringing us an alien-infused Battleship and Ridley Scott is trying to get a Monopoly film on the way. But in the meantime we’re left with Wolverine himself, Hugh Jackman, amidst the directing duties of Shawn Levy. Bear in mind this is the same man who’s burdened filmgoers with such calamities as Big Fat Liar, Just Married, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Pink Panther, and two Nights at the Museum.
While the first Museum was arguably passable entertainment it doesn’t hold up to repeat viewings at all. And the only film on his resume worth any attention is the Steve Carrel/Tina Fey venture Date Night. But I’m sure that film had everything to do with the cast involved and nothing to do with the screenplay or direction. Speaking of screenplays, while Gilroy and Leven are credited with the screen story, it’s John Gatins who receives credit for the screenplay. Here’s a man responsible for bringing us such classics as Summer Catch, Hardball, and Coach Carter. What? You don’t remember any of those flicks? Well, unfortunately I do and knowing this bit of information makes me less surprised about some of the machinations, let alone terrified to see what he will wring out for Zemeckis’ first live-action film (Flight) in eleven years.
In the year 2027, I will be 47 years old, but apparently the only thing that will have changed is literally only cell phones. At least as far as the world according to Levy is concerned. Humans in sports have also become a thing of the past and has been replaced by the World Robot Boxing League (WBR) where now we get giant robots; who are probably pretty cheap effects after three Transformers films. In the film however, these robots are far from cheap. They run upwards of $50,000. At least when they’re names consist of Ambush or Noisy Boy. The man behind these robots is Charlie Kenton (Jackman) who is a former boxer who luckily has not let his body go to waste.
After Ambush is gutted by a bull at a fair event, he now owes money to cowboy Ricky (Kevin Durand). Ricky wants his money but Charlie takes off in his truck to meet up with love interest/seeming-mechanical expert Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly). On the day Noisy Boy shows up Charlie is also introduced to his abandoned son Max (Dakota Goyo, a kid as annoying as his name would suggest). Charlie has just signed over his parental rights to the boy’s aunt Debra (Hope Davis) in a secret exchange with her husband Marvin (James Rebhorn) for said $100,000; half now, the other half after they return from a nice, long trip to Italy sans child.
Now Charlie has both Noisy Boy, the best robot to come out of Japan, and stuck with Max for the summer. After Charlie arrogantly gets Noisy Boy pummeled to pieces, they scavenge a metal recycling compound in a rain storm looking for parts to rebuild it. But in true Spielbergian fashion, Max is sliding down a ravine only to be saved by a generation two robot Max digs out and names Atom. Before you can say father/son bonding, Max learns that Atom can understand him when the plot requires him too and that he’s got a built-in shadowing program which also comes in handy whenever convenience necessitates. Meanwhile, Farra (Olga Fonda) offers Charlie and Max $200,000 to make Atom a sparring ’bot for their world champion Zeus but of course Max refuses to sell and now Atom and Zeus may be pitted against each other in a duel to the death.
For a film about fighting robots and as being marketed as such, there’s an awful lot of awful dialogue. The humans are of absolute zero interest, yet there they are, scene after scene just yucking it up amongst themselves. This may be Levy’s most accomplished looking film to date but that doesn’t save any of us from his lack of subtlety, let alone Gatins even worse command of it. Even Jackman can’t hold up as the lead when all we want to see are the robots fighting each other but there’s maybe twenty minutes of that in a two hour feature. As a deadbeat father, Jackman just can’t pull it off. When he’s not trying to look like he’s about to cry, he can’t keep himself from maneuvering one Wolverine air kick, meanwhile Goyo just won’t shut up thanks to drinking the never-ending supply of the film’s biggest promoter, Dr. Pepper. Even poor Danny Elfman gets downgraded here providing the film nothing more than violin queuing.
A good replacement for Jackman probably could have been made with Josh Holloway who’s already costarred with both Lilly and Durand on Lost. Perhaps then there may have been a chance for at least some chemistry between Charlie and Bailey and he could have brought a more respectably smart ass tone to the character. Now all we’re left with is a film ripe for cameos that never materialize and a bunch of humans who do all the talking when like I keep saying, all we want to see is robots fighting. Granted, I will give credit that what we do see of the fights is pretty awesome and could have made for grand entertainment. But alas, it all comes down to making the film family friendly and easily digestible for the masses. Something Levy knows far too well. In a world where Spielberg could have used this as an opportunity to whet our appetite for his upcoming Robopocalypse, unfortunately, Real Steel
is just real dumb.
Photos courtesy Touchstone Pictures