Thursday, January 19, 2012

MA$$ACRE: Real Steel (2011)


Robot boxing? Sounds like it has the potential to be a great dollar movie. Though it does bear a certain resemblance to Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots, and may in fact be the precursor to an incoming flood of board-game adaptations, I was hoping it'd be a rekindling of the sort of future-sports film that flourished in the eighties. Robot Jox, Arena, The Running Man - all these movies take something I don't care about (sports) and add in all elements I love (gladiatorial combat, aliens, robots, razor blades, death). Also, Hugh Jackman seems perfect for the role of bad dad who has to learn to step up to the plate in the game of fatherhood. Throw in a little Lost flashback with Evangeline Lilly, and you've more or less got a pitch that seems pretty solid to me.

But.

There's one enormous misfire in this film. Enormous, but condensed down to the pint-sized protagonist who eventually takes center stage. The precociousness of the child in this movie is massive - so much so that it raises the bar for annoying kids in cinema. (The jury is still out as to whether Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close will surpass this one.) It essentially spells doom for this film when coupled with a script that trips up the sports drama formula in a few critical places. What might have been a simple movie about robots beating the shit out of each other becomes a young boy's wish-fulfillment fantasy that'll likely annoy anyone over the age of twelve.

Starting at the beginning - first we're introduced to Charlie (Hugh Jackman), a former boxer who now pilots robots in what are essentially giant robot cockfights. Boxing is apparently illegal, because it's too dangerous. Robot boxing apparently is not, but try telling that to the audience members in the stands who dodge flying robot parts in the first fight scene. When Charlie isn't fighting robots, he's drinking. Sounds like a great time to me. Nothing needs to change about this man's life, and we could easily have an enjoyable movie with just these few ingredients. But Charlie has screwed up too much in the past. His robot skills have become rusty, and he apparently fathered and ditched a child about eleven years ago or so.

When that kid's Mom dies, guess who gets custody? Enter Max (Dakota Goyo), a sarcastic, loud-mouthed boy who seems not the least bit broken up about the fact that his mother died days ago and his father very clearly doesn't want him around. No, this kid is so confident that he doesn't let little things like that phase him. He wants to fight robots with Charlie, and he wants it NOW. The pair end up finding a junked training bot buried in the mud, and Max insists that he and Charlie take it on the road to robot fights. Charlie doesn't believe that it'll work, which is perfectly rational given the circumstances. What he hasn't learned yet is that to truly grow as a human being he must realize that his son is always right and he should do what the kid says every time without hesitation.

Essentially, that's the point of the movie. Once all other characters learn that this kid knows all, everything turns out okay. And this flips the father-son dynamic completely to one side, because it's only the errant father who has to develop. Every character in this film exists merely to feed the kid's ego and exemplify his better qualities. He learns nothing, grows not at all, because he's apparently popped out of the womb knowing how to fix robots, fight robots, program computers, dance, speak Japanese, rekindle his father's career, and maybe, just maybe bless the robot with a bit of sentience. So the pair's slow climb to the top of the robot fighting league is never in doubt. You know what's going to happen from fight one.

All that aside, the robot fights aren't bad. The motion capture process is brought front and center here, as the characters are able to control the bots by moving along with them. This is a really cool concept, and makes for some nice fight sequences. My one complaint is that the fights aren't creative enough - why not go all-out with the robots? The enemies are all essentially the same humanoid shape, save for one robot with two heads, which doesn't really impact the fight in any way.

Other than that, you've seen the same plot if you've ever seen an underdog boxing drama. This had the chance to be a perfectly inoffensive movie, but the presence of the kid just poisons everything. Still, it careens along with all the reckless and self-destructive enthusiasm of an eleven-year-old. It's hard to not get dragged along in the absurdity from time to time, and it's possible to mistake this for having a good time. If you're willing to go with it for the full two hours, you'll probably have a blast. (Other dollar theater-goers actually cheered at the end. Ironically? I'm not sure.) Unfortunately, this movie is laughable 95% of the time due to the literally unbelievable child at the center of it. Another big-budget bungling of a relatively cookie cutter formula? Come on Hollywood - you should be able to crank these things out without screwing them up by now.

3 / 10 = Skip it

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