October 8, 2011

Real Steel (10/08/2011)

Lettergrade: C+

The most ridiculous Rocky movie is easily Rocky IV. That's the one where Rocky squares off against the HGH enhanced Soviet boxer Ivan Drago played by Dolph Lundgren. The film, insanely entertaining on every level, is loaded with cheesy dialogue, an endless series of training montages, and some hysterical cameos and side characters, including James Brown as himself, a Mikhail Gorbachev look-alike who gives Rocky the slow-clap late in the film, and a particularly hammy performance by Brigitte Nielsen as Drago's wife and trainer. There's also a scene early in the movie where Paulie, played by the venerable Burt Young, is presented with his own personal robot as a birthday gift:

One imagines a scenario where Academy Award winner Robert Zemeckis was having a few beers while watching the movie with fellow Academy Award winning director Steven Spielberg. "You know what would make this movie even stupider?" the man behind Forest Gump and the Back To The Future trilogy casually asks. "If Rocky had to fight that robot in the next movie!" The bearded auteur behind Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, and Schindler's List could only chuckle inwardly at his pal's comment as he popped the cap off another Pabst Blue Ribbon, but then he stopped: Zemeckis might have something there...

And now... in 2011... it as come to pass that both men are listed as producers on Real Steel, a full-fledged robot boxing movie that is pretty much exactly that. I give the movie a lot of credit for making use of the winning underdog sports-movie formula that served Sylvester Stallone, Ralph Macchio, and countless others so well in the 80s. I also appreciated that the film took a lot of cues (and sometimes, much of its dialogue!) not only from Rocky IV and Rocky III (that's the only with Mr. T as Clubber Lang), but also borrows very very heavily from Over The Top, where Stallone is a truck driver and competitive arm-wrestler desperate to reconnect with his son. Real Steel is a little light on getting the emotion to really connect much of the time, but it's done well enough to make you sorta forget about the sheer stupidity of what you're seeing for lengthy segments.

In the distant year of 2019, boxing as we know it, where two guys get into a ring and physically punch each other, has been outlawed. Mankind, desperately needing something to fulfill its burning need to see people fight as a spectator sport, turns to the concept of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots and does it on a large scale in an arena.

Former real boxer Hugh Jackman is now a down and out robot boxer. After an opening sequence where his only remaining bot is destroyed at a Texas county fair by a prize bull (and by the way, how f***ed up is it to see a giant robot punch a bull?), he's pretty much hit bottom. Fortunately, some lawyers come out of nowhere and tell him that his ex-girlfriend of 10 years ago has just died, and that he must attend a hearing over custody of the son they have together, with whom he has never really interacted. The kid, Max, is an extremely precocious Jake Lloyd impersonator played by Dakota Goyo (most recently seen as "Young Thor" in Thor). Jackman doesn't want him, but agrees to fork over custody to his girlfriend's sister, Hope Davis, if her husband will give him a bunch of money first. Davis's rich husband agrees, but only if he takes the kid for the summer so they can take a lavish vacation in Italy first!

Anyway, Dakota and Jackman hate eachother at first, but reconcile enough where they're able to come across an old sparring bot in a junk yard, fix him up new, and become an underdog robot boxing sensation. It all leads up to the big showdown with Zeus, the current robot boxing champion. In the early Rocky movies, Rocky fights Apollo Creed. Isn't Apollo the son of Zeus?

The picture as a whole winds up being serviceably exciting and reasonably entertaining. I wouldn't recommend you go out of your way to see it, really, but the inherent drama of people competing in a sporting event shines though, and the movie isn't as embarrassing as you'd think it would be when someone starts to describe the plot to you.

The thin perfunctory emotional layer really did bother me, though, I must say. Rocky IV and Over The Top, cheesy as they are, really do find ways to make Stallone's motivation work in both cases. And then there are story points that are introduced and never quite dealt with, like the twice hinted-at notion that sparring bot Atom actually has a consciousness and feelings, ala Short Circuit's Johnny Five and Bicentennial Man's Robin Williams Bot 9000. During one bizarrely moving scene, Atom sadly looks into a mirror before a big fight, perhaps weary of the severe beating he's about to take? Or maybe it's because Jackman and Goyo are in the other room with the movie's Brigitte Nielsen clone, who is in the midst of offering the two a ton of money if they sell her the robot before the fight? And if Atom does have feelings and a soul, isn't it atypically cruel for Jackman and Dakota to put him up against bigger / stronger / meaner bots who at best might inflict severe mechanical damage upon him? These questions and more very well could be answered in Real Steel 2: Realer Steel.

I guess this kind of lean substance is par-for-the-course for director Shawn Levy, who continues to cement his reputation as sort of a less interesting version of Brett Ratner. He's directed a bunch of movies in recent years that are essentially throw-backs to the big spectacle of the 80's and 90's: Two Night At The Museum pictures (emulating Jumanji among others), that terrible Date Night film (which was modeled after some of the great Blake Edwards comedies of the 80's as well as Adventures In Babysitting, etc.), and now this: An 80's sports movie which truly owes more to the three Stallone pictures I've mentioned than I can even begin to describe. The guy is only 10 years older than I, and so I guess it makes sense that we might both like the same sorta stuff. His movies are well-shot and professionally made, even sticking to more of a classical editing style that's much more relaxed than most pictures these days. I appreciate all that about what he does, but while he's good at recreating how a lot of his great influences look and feel, he consistently seems to come up short on the intangible stuff that made the kids and teenagers of that era love those flicks in the first place.

And I really do wonder... what the hell is it with Spielberg and robots? Before he produced this movie, he produced not one but three Transformers movies, and he's planning to direct a movie called Robopocalypse after he makes that Abraham Lincoln movie next year. I guess he's a smart businessman and recognizes that toy sales based on these movies have been consistently through the roof, but maybe he should think about mixing it up a little?

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