October 6, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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REAL STEEL:  Watch It At Home – The Word is “Clunky”


REAL STEEL wants to be loved so much, it practically walks the audience members to their cars and offers to give them all a lift home.  And yet, the packed house I saw it with could only offer the movie a smattering of applause at the end, and no cheers at all for its supposedly titanic robot-vs-robot bouts.  That’s the price the picture bears for being assembled out of a crate of movie spare parts.


In John Gatins’s script (from an earlier incarnation credited to Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven, and based originally on a Richard Matheson short story), the time is very slightly in the future, which looks exactly like the present except that boxers have been replaced by giant mechanical robots who can fight endlessly and be repaired (usually) when their Rock-em-Sock-em pieces are knocked off.  The robots are “trained” by humans, one of whom is Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman).  Charlie is a figure out of a thousand movies:  an ex-boxer himself, he owes money everywhere, is completely irresponsible, especially to the sweet-yet-tough gym owner (Evangline Lilly) who loves him but knows she can’t count on him, and still nourishes dreams of the big time.


Years earlier, Charlie had abandoned his wife and young son for his life on the road, and as Real Steel begins, he finds out that his ex-wife has died, and if he’ll just sign the proper papers, his very rich ex-sister-in-law (Hope Davis, in a truly thankless role) and her tycoon hubby (James Rebhorn) will adopt the boy.  Charlie is happy enough to go along, in exchange for enough cash to buy a new robot.  BUT, because the wealthy brother-in-law wants an untroubled vacation in Tuscany, first Charlie will have to take in young Max (Dakota Goyo) for the summer.  Naturally, the two of them are unwilling companions at first; naturally, when Charlie’s expensive new robot is blown up due to Charlie’s greed, it’s Max who finds Atom, a rusting wreck of a ‘bot who can take a punch but has no skills; naturally, a reluctant Charlie is talked into training Atom; naturally, Atom begins to win.  And did I mention that early on, we’re told that the number one unbeaten robot boxer in the world is Zeus, who’s owned by a refugee from an episode of Nikita (Olga Fonda, I guess one of the lesser known Fondas) and trained by the sinister Tak Mashido (Karl Yune)?


All the cliches that were assembled to make Real Steel wouldn’t be such a problem if the movie at least had some fun with them, but the picture is painfully earnest and undeveloped (Zeus’s evil team doesn’t even get to do anything dastardly).  The gradually thawing relationship between Charlie and Max follows its predetermined path (omigosh, what will happen when Max finds out Charlie took money in exchange for giving up custody?), as Charlie gains principles and becomes a better human being.  Even though the movie’s entire reason for existing is that its fighters are made of metal instead of flesh, the fights themselves follow exactly the rules that go back (at least) to Sylvester Stallone 35 years ago:  our hero must take an unbelievable amount of punishment for round after round (“No one can survive this!”), until finally the feared opponent tires him/itself out, and that’s when the hero has one shot, just one shot, to score a stunning knockout.

Gatins’ s script is completely uninspired, and the best that can be said about Shawn Levy’s direction is that it isn’t as egregious as the work he’s done on sappy comedies like Cheaper By the Dozen and the Steve Martin Pink Panther remake.  His Night at the Museum pictures weren’t classics, but at least they made some clever use of their gimmicks; this one is just loud, and it wears its sentimentality too much on its sleeve.  (The movie was produced by DreamWorks, and like a lot of movies and TV shows produced but not directed by Steven Spielberg, it often feels like a wannabe Spielberg picture.)

There are a lot of capable actors in this thing, none of them at their best.  Jackman just coasts on his star power, and Goyo’s performance screams “child actor.”  The robots do better, and there’s some very effective melding of actual animatronic machinery with CG animation.  The picture has an A-list cinematographer in Mauro Fiore of Avatar, and Danny Elfman supplied the rousing score, so it all looks and sounds impeccable; however none of that can make it any less empty.

Real Steel is inoffensive, and it’ll please some people and make some money (although it may well need foreign revenues to pay for its enormous cost).  It’s an example, though, of that increasing Hollywood phenomenon:  an imaginative idea filmed with no imagination at all.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."