Friday, September 28, 2012

Film Friday: Real Steel (2011)

Sports films tend to be very formulaic, and Real Steel is no exception. This film has all the usual moments as the heroes make their way to the final-act fight against the all-power enemy controlled by the vilest of bad guys. Total cliché. But you know what? The formula works, and Real Steel handles it quite nicely. This was a fun movie.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
Real Steel is a combination father/son film and a boxing film, done with robots. It stars Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a former boxer who now owns a robot fighter. Kenton is broke and keeps tripping himself up at every opportunity by being rash. He accepts challenges too quickly and misses opportunities because he won’t stop to think. Kenton has a son, Max, who is being adopted by Kenton’s dead wife’s sister because Kenton doesn’t want him. Kenton wants money to make this happen and is, in essence, selling Max to the sister. Before this can happen, however, Max must spend a few weeks with Kenton. Hence, the father-son reconciliation plot is established.
Meanwhile, Kenton burns through all his money and his robots in a series of stupid mistakes made in bad fights. This results in Kenton and Max digging through a junkyard to find a new robot. Naturally, they stumble upon something special, the robot Atom. Max convinces Kenton to let Atom fight and soon finagles a match against the meanest robot of them all, the evil Zeus, designed by the nasty genius Tak Mashido and owned by the nasty heiress Farra Lemkova. We have our villains. During the fight, the voice control they use to operate Atom fails and Kenton must use his own boxing skills to guide Atom. And the winner is. . . well, I’ll let you find out yourselves.
The Formula
When I first heard about this film, I wondered what exactly they would do to make this film work. Boxing robots just isn’t naturally interesting to people because we can’t really sympathize with a machine that feels no pain and which doesn’t bleed. But the filmmakers were smart. Rather than just making this about the robots, they gave the audience the Max/Kenton reconciliation subplot, which they tied into Kenton’s robot winning. Thus, winning became important to the audience because they audience wants to see the father and son reconciled. Moreover, they cleverly found ways to make the audience prefer Kenton’s robot.

The reconciliation subplot is quite typical of father-son films. You have a son who feels that his father doesn’t care for him, and a father who must learn that his son is all he really cares about. So the film begins with the two characters about as far apart as possible to maximize the value of the eventual catharsis. In this case, Kenton is actually selling his son, and the son cares so little for the father that actually demands half the money! Could you get less love than that? Naturally, they are then thrown together and must learn to get along. Soon, they are arguing like actors in a buddy comedy as they slowly come to respect the other and finally to love each other. The moment where the respect turns to love is also punctuated with an excellent line when Kenton asks his son rhetorically what he wants from him and the son responds, “I want you to fight for me, that’s all I ever wanted!” This is a powerful moment in the film which will probably make you tear up and provides a satisfactory ending in and of itself, but the story isn’t done at that point. Instead, the fight with Zeus must still be fought.
Interestingly, the robot plot follows all the usual sports clichés, even though the robots aren’t human. The key robot, Atom, is presented as an underdog. It’s smaller and weaker than other robots. It’s not modern. In fact, they found it buried in the junkyard because no one saw any value in it. But it has one thing nobody realized. . . it can take a punch. That’s exactly what makes people like underdogs – they are seen as losers, but they have on special skill nobody cared about before. And being able to take a punch is something everyone respects.

Following the classic underdog storyline, Atom is laughed at by everyone until it wins its first fight. After that, it immediately becomes a crowd favorite, though the experts continue to laugh. This is sports populism and is common in sports stories. Each fight then plays out like every other film fight or every wrestling match, with the overmatched good guy brought down and nearly beaten before it suddenly discovers a reserve of will power and rises up to triumph over the opponent. Hulk Hogan became world famous doing this in every match he fought. Interestingly, the director even gives the sense that it is will power, rather than simply mathematics, which allows the robots to continue because the humans are cheering them on to stand back up and keep fighting. This is an important, but subtle, trick to humanize the robots.

Opposite the underdog is Zeus, the bad guy robot. Again, Zeus is the classic bad guy caricature. He’s made to appear larger than all the other robots, which makes him seem both unbeatable but also like he has an unfair natural advantage. He also wins his early matches in ways that seem unfair to the audience, such as when he knocks the arm off Kenton’s prior robot and then pummels the helpless robot into oblivion. Moreover, he was created by Tak Mashido who is presented as the arrogant, “hip” scientist who is too self-absorbed to even grant interviews and who disgustedly boasts that this challenge is beneath Zeus. Zeus’s owner is someone you dislike as well. She’s Farra Lemkova, an extremely beautiful, but cold rich woman who openly proclaims that she has spent whatever it took to buy a winner. This flies in the face of what people consider “fair” about sports, and is another example of sports populism. Zeus is primed for a fall.
Now, in truth, there is nothing evil about these villains. They don’t cheat, they don’t steal, they aren’t trying to kill Kenton or harm his relationship with his son, but they are presented a sufficiently arrogant that you won’t like them. What’s interesting about this choice of villains, however, is that they are also bland because they don’t do any of these things (cheat, steal, etc.) which allows the story to focus entirely on Kenton and his son rather than the machinations of the upcoming fight. This keeps the bond between Kenton and Max strong because the story doesn’t leave them for long stretches of unneeded subplots.

Finally, there is Kenton. Kenton is the perfect example of the modern Hollywood loveable fake-“loser.” He’s a great looking guy with a clean background and a heart of gold. He’s surprisingly capable of getting his hands on large amounts of money as needed. But he keeps failing because he’s rash and he lacks the ability to express himself to the people who love him. Both of these flaws will be solved through the relationship with his son, as his son teaches him the value of thinking through his decisions and shows him how to open up. The film then finishes with the perfect touch of redeeming Kenton’s lost career. Before the robots came along, Kenton was a professional boxer. But the robots replaced humans and human boxing ended. This is shown to be a sore spot for Kenton which makes him question his self-worth. But at the end of the film, Atom’s voice control is broken and Kenton must lead Atom through the fight with his own boxing moves. Kenton’s “outdated” skills save the day.

All of this may sound sentimental and it absolutely is, but it works extremely well. Despite the heavy-handed themes, the dialog is light enough that you never feel like you’re being hit in the face with the manipulation and the story is overall quite entertaining and fast paced. The actors have good chemistry too and the effects are excellent. But most importantly, the story feels inspiring. In every way, this film is just like a normal sports film like Rocky, despite the presence of robots, and it really does work.

I recommend this one.

51 comments:

K said...

The Disney-fied version of "The Champ"??

I felt the final fight, where the protagonist uses his boxing skills to win was rather weak. The stakes weren't high enough. If he had been inside the suit and standing a good chance at getting killed - now that would have been some interesting stakes.

Scott said...

This was one of my favorite movies of 2011. I couldn't convince my wife to go and, sadly for her, she had to wait for the DVD. When we got it, her first comment was, "you know, you were right - this movie wasn't really about the robots... they just happened to be there while the story focused on the father and son."

The second thing she noticed about me being right (hence why I remembered it - it doesn't happen often) was the role reversal. In reality, Max is far more mature, responsible, and adult-like than Charlie ever was. The real victory in the movie wasn't just the robot thingy, it was that the reversed roles were finally set right (kinda).

DUQ said...

I was going to skip this but then had nothing better to do, so I watched it and I really enjoyed it. Nice review.

You're right too, they did a great job of making you feel something for the robot.

tryanmax said...

K, I have to disagree. The stakes in Real Steel were never meant to be life-or-death. You're asking for a different movie.

The film really sells the emotional stakes by keeping those higher than any others. AS it is, even if Atom was defeated and the villains won, these could be weathered by the audience if it strengthened the bond between father and son that the whole film had been working to build.

However, this movie doesn't go that route. It's a feel-good movie, so it takes the high of the reconciliation, which happens far before the end of the film, and rides it to the end with all these other incidental challenges to overcome after the main one.

That's pretty much how all feel-good films work: they trick you into thinking that the goal is some physical obstacle, when in reality it is something emotional. The emotional plot is always resolved long before the climax of action, so in essence, they dope you up with not one, but two happy endings.

That's why Steel can be formulaic but still good: b/c it's actually a more complex formula than it appears to be. It becomes a great example of blending story lines that you've seen before into something new all over again. In a way, it refurbs the old stories in much the same way the characters refurb the robot. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

K, I thought the stakes were pretty high because that was meant to be the redemption of his lost skills, showing that there is still a place for man in a mechanical world, and it was the seal on his relationship with his son. If he couldn't do anything or refused to do something, then he and his son would have been back at the begging with the father appearing to be a quitter when it matters.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I'm glad you and your wife liked it! I think you're absolutely right about the role reversal. You notice almost right away that Max is more mature and basically smarter than his father. The one thing his father has on him is experience. And so together, they make a very strong team, but separately they are both kind of lost. It works really well to make their relationship clear and strong.

Anthony said...

I confess I skipped the movie. The trailer and concept reminded me of the abysmal Robo Jox.

Lucky for the makers of Real Steel I am the only person alive who remembers Robojox.

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, It's worth seeing. I very much enjoyed it. And like you, I had a lot of doubt going in.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, That's very true. The real climax to the film comes at the point the father and son reconcile. That's really THE high point. But then the film tricks you into maintaining that high by giving you a quick series of challenges to test the reconciliation. The guy coming for the money, the return of the sister, and finally the robot match. Each one is presented as a greater and greater test for the relationship, and in that way they keep you on the same emotional high throughout.

I think in the final match, they also add the element of redeeming his lost career as a boxer. They play that up several times that now that boxing is for robots only, human boxer have become relegated to the past, i.e. they've been dumped in the junkyard. But here Kenton gets his chance to show that he's still useful even in this world.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, I remember RoboJox. LOL!

I kept thinking of Rock-em Sock-em Robots when I saw the trailer!

I almost skipped this one as well because it just looked flat and like it would be nothing but CGI robots, but I was very pleasantly surprised. :)

NightcrawlerER said...

This was a cool film. I went for the robots, but I stayed for the plot! ;)

tryanmax said...

It's probably also worth pointing out that the CGI is seamless in this movie. The robots feel "there" and the movie feels like a future that we could expect. That really helps sell the film and makes it possible to forget that you're watching something that could ostensibly be categorized as sci-fi.

AndrewPrice said...

Nightcrawler, LOL! Well said.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I agree completely and probably should have mentioned it. There is never a moment that you doubt that these robots really exist. The fights are well shot too, so you can see all the details -- they aren't Michael Bay blurs. And there just isn't an overwhelming amount of CGI in this, even though there is constantly a robot on screen somewhere. This was excellent CGI work.

Tennessee Jed said...

it is a formulaic genre for sure, but it is one that this old geezer falls for every time. Whether it is Hoosiers, Miracle, Rocky, The Greatest Game Ever Played, Seabiscuit, or the Mighty Macs, I usually like them all. As far as great sports films that don't quite fit the template, my favorites are 8 Men Out, a very realistic depiction of the 1919 Black Sox World Series scandal, and Raging Bull, a biography of boxer Jake LaMotta. No "feel goods" in either, but both gre4at films nonetheless.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, It is definitely a formulaic genre, but like you, I also fall for these films every time. There is just something about the formula they have picked which hits all the right buttons.

Excellent list of films too!

As an aside, thinking of Rocky and Major League and some others, I'm amazed at how often the good guys lose in these films?

Tennessee Jed said...

I think it is an attempt to alter the formula a little bit, but what has happened is that it becomes an alternate formula in it's own right.

T-Rav said...

So you're saying I shouldn't have rolled my eyes at the previews for this one? ;-)

While I do like most of Hugh Jackman's work, the idea of boxing robots just seemed completely ridiculous to me. But, if it comes on TV sometime, I'll make sure to give it a fair viewing.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, That's true. But I'll tell you that I think the good guy losing at the end formula is more effective because give you a quick let down to reset your emotions followed by the high of the being "the real winner" despite losing.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I rolled my eyes as well, but I was mistaken -- this one is good. :)

And I too like mos of Jackman's work. He was good in this as well. I recommend watching it.

Ed said...

This was a very watchable film and that is saying something these days. Too many films lose me halfway through, but this one kept me to the ending.

I do like the father-son plots a lot and this one was very nicely handled.

Ed said...

I also agree with your point to Jed about the forumla being stronger because of the emotional yo yo, but also because it means that their victory is stronger than just the game itself. If they win the game, then you only know that their victory counts in the good times, but you don't know yet if they will survive in the bad times. But by losing, you see the characters overcome their first huge hurdle and that is a way to let you know the victory/change is strong.

Doc Whoa said...

A feel good movie is the best way to decribe this. You just feel good watching it and you keep feeling "gooder" throughout until the very end. It's very uplifting and it's fun. I think it helps, like you suggest, that they really downplay the villains because it lets you stay on that emotional high throughout without being dragged into an ugly side-plot where bad things are happening. I liked this one a lot!

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, Don't discount the yo-yo effect! The idea behind the yo-yo effect is to make the highs higher by give you a low right before pushing back up the high. It's the change in magnitude which makes it so much stronger than just a steady rise.

I think you make a great point this showing the relationship/change to be stronger too. Anybody can be happy during the good times, but by having the good guy lose and everyone still being just as happy, it shows that the change is for real and will survive even the down times. Excellent observation!

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, Feeling "gooder" LOL! I agree about the ugly side plot. I was sure this film would have one because almost all of these stories have the evil foil who is there to bring the audience down and put the heroes in danger. And there is some of that, like the guy looking to collect his money. But I was very happy that this film didn't delve into that because it wasn't needed here. This was a strong enough story without that.

LawHawkRFD said...

Sounds like a movie worth watching. Still, I think I'll wait for it to show up again on HBO or Showtime. But without your review, I probably would have skipped it entirely.

Doc Whoa said...

Feel gooder seemed right! ;)

I agree with you because too many comedies include this evil guy who isn't needed except that he makes the hero look better by comparison, but I don't usually care for those scenes because the guy is usually unrealistic, cartoonish and it feels like his scenes drag the plot down.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, It's out there now on one of those channels and I recommend it.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, I know exactly what you mean. I can think of several just villains who, in my opinion, hurt otherwise solid movies.

rlaWTX said...

As everyone here has figured out, I am not the most discriminating movie watcher. If they get me interested and caring, I can ignore a lot of flaws. And I figured that this was going to be one of those movies that I was the only one who liked it when I saw that Andrew reviewed it...
SURPRISE!!!
I actually got into arguments on BH over this one - people kept dismissing it, and I kept defending it. I liked the cynical son, the loser dad, and the humanized robot. I rooted for all 3 throughout! The world didn't seem unrealistic; the visuals were good enough to keep you in that world. And what's not to like about Hugh Jackman??? :)
I'm glad y'all liked it too!!!

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, See! We can agree sometimes! :)

I really enjoyed this one. It does exactly what a film like this should -- it pulls you in, it makes you care, it never takes you out of the film, and it leaves you feeling happy and inspired when it's all over. This was a well done movie and deserves a lot of praise!

What were they upset about at BH?

ellenB said...

I enjoyed this film immensely. It made me laugh, it made me cry. I thought that line was really powerful too, when Max says I just want you to fight for me!

rlaWTX said...

the robots; they didn't "believe" the interactions between dad & son; Jackman was too mean, shallow, etc;
I thought it sounded like they had decided that it would be bad/cheesy/silly before seeing and refused to see anything that didn't conform to that notion. I liked Jackman's character's evolution. I've seen selfish men finally become good men/fathers because of their children. I liked that the kid was cynical - kids these days know when their parents don't want them, and know how the world works... and I liked the Atom storyline.

AndrewPrice said...

Ellen, LOL! I've heard that somewhere before, though I don't remember where. Maybe it was an ad for something?

Anyway, I agree about that line being very powerful. It really hits you strongly. I very much believed their relationship and I give a lot of credit to both actors for making the chemistry really work.

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, I agree completely. I think those relationships were why this film worked. I believed Jackman's character throughout and I could see the change in his personality making him better. I likewise believed Max throughout and I thought he really sold the whole film -- very strong bit of acting. And the relationship struck me as very true, not Hollywood idealized true.

T-Rav said...

This is a weird thing to comment on, but there were several boxing movies out last year, and one thing I noticed was how the previews always featured their significant others clapping and cheering from the stands, and not much else. I mean, it really didn't do anything else with them other than that one shot. Don't mean to sound like a weirdo feminist or anything, it's just something I noticed that bothered me for some reason.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, My guess is that this was the result of some focus group testing which said that women are more likely to see the films if they feel they can relate to a female character within the film. That's just a guess, but that's how trailers are built -- to touch upon demographics.

rlaWTX said...

and previews and trailers often totally distort the storyline of the movie... GRRR

AndrewPrice said...

Yeah, that annoys me too. I've actually gotten to the point of being able to dissect the trailers.

DUQ said...

Has anyone noticed that trailers are all the same now?

T-Rav said...

I can't dissect them, but I have figured out that the clips shown are usually manipulated so that what they seem to be indicating has little to do with their actual place in the movie.

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, Yep, they're all the same these days. Actually, I'd say they follow 2-3 styles and are identical within those styles.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I can dissect them, although lately they've begun to splice dialog together to make it harder. They literally are creating scenes that never happen now. Amazing.

ScottDS said...

What were they upset about at BH?

What weren't they upset about? :-D

I didn't see this movie - I like Jackman but it's just not something that interests me. Maybe one day far in the future when I have kids and the film airs on TCM or something. Until then, meh.

Besides, director Shawn Levy hasn't really done anything to impress me. To be fair, I've only seen bits and pieces of the Night at the Museum movies and Date Night was only remotely watchable because of Tina Fey and Steve Carell - both of whom have been much funnier elsewhere.

AndrewPrice said...

Scotty, Scotty, Scotty. Tisk tisk.

Yeah, I'm not impressed with Levy at all. I thought both Night at the Museum and Date Night stunk. This one was good though. But I don't necessarily credit the direction. I think the actors sold this one.

Commander Max said...

This is the newest film in my collection. I wasn't expecting much from the film, after it was over I was shocked. They made a good movie? Andrew I'll second the recommendation.

Unlike Mysterious Island(the new one). Which I made the mistake of renting(Netflix, so it isn't that bad a hit). Whoever thought that was good, please don't breed. Since someone mentioned RobotJox, it was a far superior film to Mysterious Island. I watched RobotJox recently what scared me, it was better than I thought it was. (Andrew that's a topic for you, were the bad films of yesterday, better than the good films of today?)

Oddly enough I liked Night at the Museum. But I didn't like Stilller's character all that much. Plus some of the gags were very weak.

AndrewPrice said...

Max, I'm glad you liked it! I wasn't expecting much either and I really enjoyed this!

I've wondered about that Max. I get the feeling that a lot of old movies that seemed pretty horrible or subpar at the time probably would rate much higher than average today.

Commander Max said...

Think about it, when it came out, "The Last Starfighter" was a bad film. It disappeared from the Phoenix market in 2 weeks. In a time when movies played all summer.
Today people loved it, give it all kinds praise.

I can't think of any others off hand. But I have been surprised many times. Films I thought were horrible and vice versa.

AndrewPrice said...

Max, That's true. There was a lot of hype around Last Starfighter, but it didn't last too long, but today it's remembered much more fondly.

I don't have films off the top of my head, but I seem to recall a lot of comedies in particular that made big splashes at the time and have since vanished while others that weren't that big are now considered huge. Hindsight changes a lot!

Commander Max said...

There is something Real Steel kept making me thing of. That is the future of these types of sports.
I am not a fan of any sports. But if robots replace players, then I might become one.

It's too bad out technology isn't to the level of what Real Steel portrayed. But I'm sure given time people would complain about injuries to robots.

AndrewPrice said...

Max, I wondered about that too. If we had robots fighting, would more people be interested in fights? Based on the number of people who turn out for films like Transformers, I suspect they would.

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