You can lead a robot to boxing, but you can’t make him dance
It would make my job a lot easier if Real Steel was as dumb and hilarious as it first sounded, when director Shawn Levy said of it:
“In a movie filled with these mechanical warriors, at its core ‘Real Steel’ is an incredibly human story.”
The brilliantly absurd unintentional satire of that aside, what Levy apparently meant was, “Real Steel is Over the Top with robot boxing instead of arm wrestling.”
The amazing thing is that for about 20 minutes, Levy almost convinced me that what I just typed might actually be a brilliant premise. We open on Hugh Jackman, a broken-down old robot boxing trainer (and former regular boxer) who owes money all over town. He’s taken to sticking his robots in freakshow exhibition matches, like the first of the film, pitting his robot against a 2,000-pound bull. “We agreed on an 800-pound bull!” Jackman yells.
Of course, as we all know, it’s not the size of the bull in the robot fight, it’s the size of the fight in the robot that fights the bull. (I think?) The bull turns out to be owned by bad guy Kevin Durand at a county fair in San Leandro — a suburb of Oakland, which looks strangely like Texas in the future. One of many confusing narrative choices.
However, what you notice about Levy’s direction, aside from some of casually retarded story choices, is that he has a real talent for visuals. The opening tracking shots of Hugh Jackman driving around in his robot truck are gorgeous, and when the fights start, Levy shoots them without shaky-cam or quick cuts, and with actual spatial awareness, something Michael Bay abandoned long ago in favor of explosions and sluts and exploding sluts. I actually might’ve enjoyed Transformers if it had been shot like this. I guess what I’m saying is, if your movie is about robots that box, show us the robots boxing, you know?
Another thing Real Steel has going for it is that Hugh Jackman’s character is kind of a prick. In Over the Top, Stallone came off as a slow-witted goon who’d do anything for his estranged effeminate child, Mike Hawk (seriously, that was the kid’s name. insert your own Freudian subtext there). To its credit, Real Steel depicts Jackman as a shameless deadbeat who never wanted to be a father, who happily agrees to sign over custody of the 11-year-old he sired with some faceless, now-dead slutty ex, in exchange for a cash sum paid by her surviving brother-in-law, a preposterously cliché cartoon of a rich guy played by James Rebhorn in, I sh*t you not, a f*cking ascot. Hey, why not a top hat and monocle? Point being, Jackman actually tries to sell his child. That was a nice surprise. When the child shows up (Dakota Goyo, looking like thinner Jake Lloyd from Episode I), he turns out to be kind of a prick too (chip off the ol’ block, and all of that). Neither are maudlin objects of pity, which, in a movie this otherwise hacky, is at least… something.
But the movie eventually goes off the rails, and when it does, hoo boy. I’d say it hits the tipping point right about the time when the kid starts teaching the robot to hip hop dance (he even teaches his robot the robot — *BRAAAAAAAHM*). The kid discovers Atom, aka Robot Rocky, in a junkyard one night, and they soon discover that despite being mostly obsolete, the old bot has a “mirroring” function, which the filmmakers will be obsessed with for the rest of the film. So the kid busts out a couple dance moves straight out of Dance Central for xBox Kinect (don’t ask me how I know that), and the robot follows suit.
This is to say nothing of another scene, an underground robot fight against a methed-out trainer sporting a mohawk which takes place at a zoo, set to a Limp Bizkit song, that ends when Atom hits the opposing robot once, causing it to malfunction in such away that the opponent punches itself in the face until it dies. Because yeah, that also happened.
Where Real Steel really fails narratively is that none of the villains have any charisma whatsoever. Oh, they have funny accents alright, but to call them videogame villains would be insulting to videogames, even 8-bit ones. But it isn’t the strange plot choices or lack of nuance that eventually make you hate this movie, it’s that the entire thing starts to feel like a commercial for some nauseating, vaguely dystopian near future. Everything is a blatant product placement — for Dr. Pepper, HP, Mercedes — not to mention that the future kid is always depicted wearing shirts for bands like The Clash and Van Halen, whose names have been shamelessly dropped for throwaway kitsch value. When the little kid grabs the announcer’s microphone and starts issuing challenges to opposing robots, it feels like a WWE tie-in (and in light of recent events, I’m sure it is). I couldn’t help thinking of the Idiocracy future where the country is run by a former pro wrestler who presides over the House of Representin’. When Hugh Jackman supports his son’s efforts to teach the robot to hip hop dance, because he says, fighting is all about spectacle and the crowds will eat it up because he’s a kid, I couldn’t help thinking of a future in which all children are eventually schooled in ways to manufacture reality show drama before they hit puberty. Toddlers and Tiaras and Robots, say. And, perhaps worst of all, the entire premise rests on an attempt to ascribe human feelings to this inanimate object that mirrors your analog self. They talk to the robot, which is basically a vaccuum cleaner, like it’s a person. And they celebrate that. They eventually tease people for not treating the robot like it has feelings. It feels almost like an attempt to convince you that your Facebook avatar should be accorded the same rights as your fellow man, solely because it looks like you and can acquire goods online. And here I was looking for a dumb movie about robot jox.
Which is to say, Real Steel feels like a commercial for a videogame, and a particularly f*cking scary one at that. Your kids will love it, and that makes it even scarier.