Saturday, October 8, 2011

Sometimes Cinema Siren is dragged to a movie with only the promise of a hot chest and 6-pack abs, and the rock’em-sock’em robot Rocky story Real Steel seemed to have only Hugh Jackman’s considerable visual charms going for it.

When you enter a theatre counting the minutes before shirt removal (no more than 20 minutes, friends) it isn’t a good sign. Imagine my surprise when this cornfest with a silly premise that borrows bits from movies ranging from The Champ to Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome turned out to be so highly entertaining. I kept expecting it to crash and implode on itself, but throughout the duration of this movie, even as I knew it was completely ridiculous, I was also grinning ear to ear.

If you can overlook the obvious product placements and the largely predictable plot, you’ll have a great time. I had heard the studio had already screened upwards of 10 previews of Real Steel because the ever increasing buzz was so positive, and sure enough at the end there wasn’t just a smattering of applause, there was cheering. Seriously. Cheering for a boxing robot. Cinematic wonders never cease.

Have you ever heard or seen of a boxing movie with an original plot? Well, this one doesn’t have one either. Washed up drunken boxer who has lost his mojo tries to find it again with the help of… his plucky girlfriend? The progeny he has long ignored?…

The story that finds its way under your skin in this movie is the development of the relationship between a longtime absentee father and his son, the invigoration of which leads to a reaffirmation of the man’s self worth, and owes much to the classic The Champ, starring Jackie Cooper, with whom young star Dakota Goyo shares more than a passing resemblance. All of this and a robot underdog, too.

This is a future where bots have replaced bods so as to allow for total annihilation, total destruction, or so as to allow the fighters to, as one scruffy back alley announcer called it, “serve up a hot cup of decappuccino.” There’s big money being made in the sport with robots beating each other to a fuel spewing, socket springing, computer overloading pulp in front of the same or a slightly more rabid betting cheering audience.

For boxer Charlie Kenton, played by Jackman, life has devolved into running from loan sharks, taking fights for his second rate robot with bulls at the county fair, and swilling beer before he crawls out of bed in the morning. He gets saddled with his kid, that he doesn’t want, when the boy’s mother dies.

Together with the help of his former childhood sweetheart (who is also the daughter of his old boxing trainer) and the robot his son Max digs and arduously reconstructs out of a scrap heap, naming him Atom, he slowly builds his life back into something more. The scenes of interaction between any of these three humans is what gives this movie its heart and the audience can’t help but root for them in every way possible.

The robot fight scenes will have them rooting too. Not least of which because of Atom’s anthropomorphized look and underdog status, every fight, or every time he gets in the ring, the audience is in his corner. Also, the whole idea that these fights are big mechanized robots beating each other is utterly ridiculous but such tasty action eye candy it overrules any silliness factor.

In the big final bout against the biggest toughest bot of them all, Zeus, Jackman has to shadow box Atom’s moves hit for hit, and the crowd goes wild, both in the movie and in the theatre. If there isn’t actual slow motion, it plays that way in my head.

I’m a bit of a sucker for an underdog movie. In spite of what seems to be an endless stream of career missteps on the part of the talented and gorgeous Hugh Jackman, he has stumbled into a success. Though initially targeted at younger teenaged boys, Real Steel has somehow made more of itself and become a feel-good movie about redemption both families and adult escapists will applaud.


I walked out shaking my head and smiling in disbelief. “I’ll hate it in the morning,” I thought… but I didn’t. I guess sometimes what seems like a stupid idea actually works. We should all remember that.