There’s nothing inherently wrong with a formula picture, the problem is with filmmakers not investing in the formula. There’s just too many big budget movies these days – like the Pirates or Transformers films – where the characters and what they do don’t make sense, and it’s near impossible to care about anything that happens to them. So it’s strange that director Shawn Levy managed to make a formula picture right. Best known for the sub-par Night at the Museum films, Levy came across as a hack. But Real Steel knows exactly what it’s doing and works you over. Hugh Jackman stars as a washed up boxer trying to make his living fighting with robots. Enter his abandoned son (Dakota Goyo) and a special robot that might be able to take them to the top. Our review of Real Steel on Blu-ray follows after the jump.
The opening of the film has to set up a lot of stuff that’s a bit hackneyed, but it also set the terms of the movie. It’s going to give you all the pieces so when it all comes together, it’s part of the process. Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, who used to be an okay boxer, but now makes a living with his robot fighters. Yeah, it’s kind of a riff on rock’em sock’em robots. The film starts by showing what a cad and unfocused person Charlie is as he tries to hustle children and loses a fight because he’s too distracted by a pretty lady. He gets a summons to sign away the rights to his child Max (Goyo), but smells money from the family, so he agrees to watch the kid over the summer for a hundred thousand dollars. That way he can buy a new robot, and give Bailey (Evangeline Lily) some money. Bailey’s the daughter of his old trainer and keeps an empty gym going. Also: is the love interest.
Charlie loses another fight with a new robot, but then Max finds Atom, an old training droid built to take a beating. Max fixes him up and actually wins a fight with him, giving him confidence. Charlie’s still a jerk, but both see something in Atom, and with “shadow mode” they’re able to train him to do some of Charlie’s old moves. There’s also an Apollo Creed figure in the movie in the robot boxer Zeus, who’s owned by an evil Japanese guy (Karl Yune), and evil Russian woman (Olga Fonda). Max wants a fight against the big guy, and they become the plucky underdog. But Charlie has to learn some lessons about caring and being a parent first.
Real Steel is a by the book rehash of films like Rocky and Paper Moon, but it gives you characters to care about and stakes that are interesting. Hugh Jackman does the sort of star turn that plays to his natural strengths – we know he can do cocky, but he’s also fairly convincing once he turns into the humbled man. Dakota Goyo looks like a TV child actor, but he proves to not be that annoying, and he doesn’t have the sort of chippy one-liners that often ruin performances like this. He’s mostly just a kid, and it works.
But more importantly, the effects work with the robots is kept as practical as possible, and more so than many of the blockbusters of today. It makes a huge difference. When the robots are fighting, it mostly looks like two real things are in the ring together. Being able to invest in Atom by not looking at the edges to see how the effects are done, and by giving the performers something to look at directly makes this way more engaging than any of the Transformers movies.
At the same time, this is inarguably high class schmaltz that hits most every cliché it can on the way. Pauline Kael once made the observation that there’s so little great art, that it would be a shame to not enjoy great trash. And with this film, what makes it work is that it’s not trying to be an Oscar picture. It’s big and dumb, and knows it. But it gives you an engaging enough story and effects that work, and in an era where even the best of the superhero movies have less interesting third acts, and often throw sequences of needless action on the screen to distract you from thin characters going through the motions of the hero’s journey, it’s nice to have a film where it actually believes in what it’s doing. On some level the system is broken now in terms of getting movies together with finished scripts before they’re shot – too often brand names and release dates trump having a story to tell. Real Steel may not be great art, but it’s definitely great trash.
Dreamworks’s Blu-ray comes in a number of packages – you can get it with a DVD, and with a DVD and digital copy. The Blu-ray comes in widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS-HD 7.1 master audio. They’ve definitely given this the best possible transfer – the film looks and sounds incredible. The Blu-ray also comes with a second screen application that was not available for review, but should be available when the disc hits the street. Extras include the fake documentary “Countdown to the Fight – The Charlie Kenton Story” (14 min.), which gives the main character more backstory, while there’s a making of for the Metal Valley sequence (14 min.). This is followed by “Building the Bots” (6 min.), which highlights how much was done practically, while “Sugar Ray Leonard: Cornerman’s Champ” (6 min.) talks about their technical advisor. The disc also comes deleted and extended scenes (18 min.) with an introduction by Shawn Levy that feature a deleted storyline (that makes the kid more of a hustler), and bloopers (3 min.).