Real Steel (2011)
I really liked this movie! It always seemed entertaining, but I was never sure if it was exactly for me. Turns out, it absolutely was, and I wish I had seen it in theatres for that big rousing experience. Real Steel is a heart warming story with a lot of exciting action, lovable humor, and strong emotional drama. This is a crowd pleaser, and a wonderful family oriented film.
In the near future, boxing as we know it has changed from human athletes to robotic competitors. This has left former boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) down on his luck shopping his worn out bot fighter Ambush around to small time fairs and events. He’s broke with large debts hanging over his head to many people, and his con man bravado constantly gets him in over his head. However, his life is about to change when the mother of his estranged eleven year old son passes away, and her sister, Debra (Hope Davis) wants to claim fully custody of Max Kenton (Dakota Goyo). Charlie negotiates a deal with the clearly well-off Uncle Marvin (James Rebhorn) to take the kid for the summer with a $50,000 price tag up front while Debra and Marvin take off to Italy. Charlie uses the cash to buy a new robot, but Max will not be dumped off with Charlie’s girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly) who tries to keep her late father’s boxing gym open. So, he joins Charlie out on the bot fighting circuit where they constantly come into odds with one another, but when their big time Japanese bot gets mutilated during a main event bout, they head to the junkyard to scrap together parts for a new fighter. Here, Max discovers Atom, an old sparring bot, buried under the mud, and Max dedicates himself to fixing up and championing Atom as their new fighter. Charlie doesn’t have faith that Atom is worthwhile, but eventually, their combined efforts and warming attitudes help lead them all to great success. The two reach great heights with Atom and as a family. Although, they hit many turbulent moments that tear them apart, but also, bring them closer together to forge a father-son bond that is stronger than steel.
I have to hand it to everyone involved in this movie. I don’t think it could’ve been better. Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) certainly had great input from producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis to create such a well balanced film. There are many elements in Real Steel that are very akin to the films they made back in the 1980s. It is very heartfelt and endearing with plenty of enjoyable, well developed characters. Listening to Levy’s audio commentary, I can’t help but to love his passion and love for what he does.
I’ll certainly get to Hugh Jackman, but I absolutely wanted to credit Dakota Goyo. This young actor makes this film work beyond expectations. It is so often that child actors grate on an audience’s nerves due to unnatural attitude or overt, sickening cuteness, but Dakota is nothing of the sort. He comes off as a sharp, intelligent, mature, and charming kid. He has vast potential, and so much of that is fleshed out here. He carries his equal weight opposite Jackman, and their chemistry is amazingly fantastic! They keep each other on their toes, demanding higher and higher standards from one another throughout the story. Max brings out the best in Charlie and so many others through his confident, ambitious, yet still youthful spirit. He does have attitude, but it works to show that Max isn’t going to back down from Charlie, who needs someone to kick some sense and maturity into him. And how Max bonds with Atom is amazingly heartfelt, like a boy bonding with his dog. Atom certainly is given that personality of a kid’s best, loyal friend, and the child-like innocence of that relationship is beautifully realized. In the hands of any lesser of a talent, the film would’ve had a fatal weak point, but Goyo truly elevates the film. He projects sympathy at key moments, and while he is a tough kid, he does have his vulnerability. He can elicit a wide range of emotions from an invested audience. I love the fact that Max is just looking for someone who will fight for him, to be needed and loved by someone so bad, and the moment he reveals that is heartbreaking and powerful.
Hugh Jackman gives Charlie Kenton an extra dimension that allows him to be likeable even when, by all rights, he shouldn’t be. Again, with any less of an actor, Charlie would’ve been despicable and obnoxious. Instead, Jackman brings a slightly sympathy to Charlie which allows him to be forgivable and redeemable. This story truly is an evolution for Charlie from a guy at rock bottom that’s entirely self-serving without a genuine, honest relationship to a father who comes to care deeply for his estranged son who wants to do all things right by him. Charlie starts out a little pathetic, but not entirely innocent of the problems that befall him. He talks a good game, but his bravado gets the better of him. He’s a man that had his taste at greatness, but the change in the fight game abruptly ended those dreams. So, he feels broken, and wants to avoid showing his feelings by masking with an arrogant, if immature demeanor. However, the more time he spends with Max, the more Charlie’s hardened swagger softens. Jackman beautifully captures those moments of Charlie’s heart and compassion breaking through the surface such as a moment where Charlie saves Max from a mudslide fall right before they discover Atom. Dakota’s performance pulls out these qualities in Jackman’s character forcing him to come to terms with his past and character flaws. Charlie becomes a better person because of Max, and Jackman plays that subtle development brilliantly. He only puts in what charm and swagger that are needed at any given moment. He finds the perfect balance between the old Charlie and the new Charlie in every scene as he journeys from one end of that spectrum to the other. Beyond all else, Hugh clearly had a fun time making this movie, and shared a lot of respect with Dakota.
The father-son relationship is the entire core of this film, and casting these two deeply talented, smart actors was the best, first step to achieving success. They were fully committed to the story and characters here. Both of their performances become painfully heartbreaking, but also immensely exciting. There is so much nuance to their performances allowing them to work off of each other, and create that charming bond which drives the whole film. I simply cannot say enough about them that you will have to experience them yourself.
Rounding out the core cast, Evangeline Lilly’s Bailey is excellent as well. Bailey tries to keep from having to sell her father’s old boxing gym, but Charlie’s debts to her make that difficult. However, Charlie has enough charm with her to slide by, but she never makes it too easy for him. Evangeline has a lot of energy, enthusiasm, and passion to inject into the movie. She plays off of Jackman exceptionally well as his love interest. The relationship is playful, intimate, and honest. Bailey is an easy going woman that you can entirely see the history and connection she shares with Charlie, and how her hope in him grows as the story builds. She is very easy to connect with, and remains strongly tethered to the heart of the film. Her visceral moments cheering on Atom during the fights are awesome, and that likely reflects the audience’s enthusiasm to see our heroes achieve glorious victory. There is just so much heart and emotion that pours out of this film, and these actors saturate it with incredible performances.
The supporting cast strongly hold the smaller areas of the film together. Hope Davis as Max’s Aunt Debra is very caring and protective of her nephew. His Uncle Marvin, played by the solid James Rebhorn, is not unappreciative of Max, but is also not ready to drop everything to be his father figure. Kevin Durand portrays the Texan Ricky with a slick, ill-favored attitude, but he’s just enough of an intimidating yet foolish character to be amusing. The smug, arrogant duo of Olga Fonda and Karl Yune as Zeus’ owner and creator, respectively, are great foils for Charlie & Max who are full of humanity and determination. These nicely textured characters, backed by solid acting talents, add a strong foundation to build these great character dynamics upon that are the substance of this film.
Mauro Fiore’s cinematography is stunningly gorgeous and powerful. The frame holds substantial weight and emotion with brilliant, beautiful lighting. The subtle movement in the more tender emotional scenes brings class and sophistication to the film. There are also many great shots that show off the scale, production quality, and depth of the film. Levy and Fiore brought a great artistic detail to the visual quality, and production designer Tom Meyer also deserves credit for creating such a visually appealing world for them to capture. The selection of locations and aesthetics of the slightly futuristic world is highly impressive and enveloping. Each scene is given importance and artistic resonance. The boxing scenes are greatly captured with coherent motion that respects the action it is capturing. Again, the film shoots for higher standards by dismissing cheap shaky cam nonsense for solid camera movement and cinematic integrity.
The robots themselves are such a delight. The personality and fun these filmmakers put into these designs are so pleasing. They are not hard edged designs like Transformers, but more marketable, vibrant, engaging designs that would bring smiles to a wide audience. This gives the film so much character and entertainment value. Every robot boxer has their own distinct identity to give each fight a certain tone. Midas is a very punked-out underground fighter bot that reflects the gritty, dirty environment he battles in. Twin Cities, a two headed bot, is a very inventive design that Charlie & Max have to be innovative in order to defeat. Zeus is effectively intimidating with his bulk, strength, and square jawed design. Charlie’s first bot, Ambush, is like an old faded out car that once had its day, but is far from top of the line now. Noisy Boy, the former big time bot Charlie buys on the black market, is sharply designed with a Samurai motif. He’s very showy with sleek lines and bright LED colored lights, but Atom is the real marvel. He feels like the underdog as he’s not big and bulky or particularly showy, but the strength of the design is how an audience can project whatever they feel into Atom’s face. The big glowing turquoise eyes are very endearing, and the welding scars on its screened face work as a makeshift smile and nose. He’s a little wounded, beat up, but he has an innocent, youthful quality to him. This is also due to the sound design of Atom’s little murmurs and wails. He’s a wonderful creation that embodies the heart and determination of the story, and with his shadow mode, he reflects upon the qualities of Charlie and Max repeatedly.
The effects of Real Steel took a very smart approach by building and using practical robots for many purposes, and interchanging them with digital effects. This ultimately allowed for far more photo-realistic fighting robots that interact with their surroundings seamlessly. They used motion capture on real boxers for all of these fights to give the robots realistic movement and unique personalities. These performers were supervised by the great and legendary Sugar Ray Leonard. Learning that Levy had all these great collaborators on this film, including Leonard, Spielberg, and Zemeckis, that makes it easy to see how Shawn Levy was able to create such a powerful and impressive film. He had the right studio backing him up, and a wide array of fantastic, top line talents guiding the creative process along. These visual effects are excellent standard bearers, and many filmmakers should look to the methods and skills used in Real Steel for future effects-filled features.
Now, I surely must have missed large chunks in the evolution of Danny Elfman’s film composer career. While I know him best from films like Batman, Mission: Impossible, and Spider-Man, I never knew he was capable of something of this caliber. Director Shawn Levy said that the list of composers who could do what Elfman did is extremely short. He creates a wide range of depth to the score between the guitar strumming ambience to the rousing big fight action cues. This entirely compliments the overall emotional landscape of the movie from the visuals to the acting and beyond. How Levy orchestrates the timing of these cues is very original as he delays the punctuation of these moments. I feel this allows the emotional beats to be more raw and tender which only enhances them further. This is really the sign of a great filmmaker with a strong, clear vision of what he wanted to achieve, and he got it.
The story itself is not new, but as is the real skill, it’s how effective and fresh a filmmaker can make a well treaded story which makes it special. I believe that was successfully achieved here. Emotions are finely crafted around the character relationships and internal personalities. And where a normal boxing movie is more violent and brutal, the robot boxing allows for the fights to be fun, exciting, and enjoyable. There’s so much adrenalin pumping action that it is bound to please almost any audience. The film always seems to find character building moments in its plot developments. I also love how the film doesn’t start with a boat load of exposition. It allows an audience to ease into the story and characters, and only later, after they have been comfortably established does the history of robot boxing and Charlie’s own boxing career get detailed. It shows what the true focus is here – the characters, and that it is its greatest strength.
Overall, Real Steel is a real winner! I was thoroughly entertained and surprised by this movie over and over again. The climactic fight between Atom and Zeus is stellar, genius stuff! While the film clearly had templates of other boxing and sports movies to follow, the advantage of the robots and technology allows for an unexpected turn during the final round that gives Charlie his moment to shine and gain redemption for his boxing career. Everything is beautifully crafted wrapped with heart, humor, and humanity. There really is so much I can say, but it’s not easy to articulate it. Sometimes, you just have to experience it to comprehend the depth and excellence of a film. To everyone involved in the making of Real Steel, you have my deepest respect and highest praise! I loved it!