In Home Viewings: "Real Steel"

Set in the not-so-distant future, Real Steal brings us into a reality in which human boxing has been replaced by bouts between Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots on steroids. (This appears to be the only difference between our current society and the one portrayed in the film.) Charlie Kenton, a former boxing champ, makes a quasi-living taking a robot from town to town, engaging in low-rent and sometimes illegal fights for whatever cash he can get his hands on. Needless to say, he also owes some bad people some serious money. Just as he runs out of money and useable robots, he finds out that the mother of his illegitimate child, Max (Dakota Goyo), has died and he is forced to take Max out on the road with him for the summer. After breaking into a robot parts center, Charlie and Max stumble across an aging robot buried in the ground, a machine that Max takes a liking to. As the robot, named Adam, proves to be more important than originally thought, Charlie allows Max to enroll Adam in various underground fights, a path that ultimately leads to the major fighting circuit and a chance at the prize fight that Charlie never got.

On my personal list of 2011’s biggest surprises, Real Steel reaching a high level of profitability would rank fairly high. I thought, along with just about everyone else, that this movie was headed to “disaster” status, especially considering its $110 million budget. Instead, it stayed atop the domestic box office for two weeks and then managed to bring home a huge chunk of cash overseas. Even more surprising, Real Steel found some actual praise from noteworthy critics, earning enough good press that I had to switch move it from “Don’t See” to “Rent” on my upcoming movie spreadsheet (yes, I have an upcoming movie spreadsheet; stop laughing). When I finally did get a chance to check this movie out, I was actually somewhat excited about the prospect of taking it in, a sentiment I did not expect. In hindsight, I probably should have stuck to my original thoughts.

More than anything else, Real Steel is a prime example of how one misstep in the filmmaking process can bring the whole thing crashing down. In truth, most of the elements at play in this movie are good-enough for a family action flick, if not downright solid. The plot is shallow but also light and breezy, the type of narrative that certainly isn’t inspired but does a serviceable job of staying away from embarrassing or irritating. (For the record, I feel that’s all you can ask of a film like this.) Jackman is believable in his role and you get the sense that he enjoyed making this movie, a “plus” that should never be overlooked. The supporting actors around Jackman, including Anthony Mackie (The Adjustment Bureau) and Evangeline Lilly (Lost), do an admirable job of holding up their end of the bargain and even the marginal background actors are fine in most cases. And the action sequences are fun and lively, providing an illustration of how to use CGI effectively in this sort of movie. Real Steel doesn’t suck you in or create an investment the way a normal sports movie does but the action is rapid fire and enjoyable.

You would think that would make for a pretty good movie overall. But you would be wrong. Because no matter how entertaining the fights are, how enjoyable Jackman is, and how easy the plot moves, the combination cannot overcome the head-meets-wall pain brought on by Goyo. I really, really, REALLY try hard not to bag on child actors on the grounds of, “it’s not his/her fault.” They’re just kids, after all, and it’s unfair to expect greatness from a kid. This is, however, a special case. I wish the best for Goyo; I hope he gets better and I hope he has a long and glorious career. But as of right now, this kid is TERRIBLE. His deliberate and overdone mannerisms and disposition are painful and with every word he spoke, I became more and more aware of the tiny gremlin that was stabbing me in the ear with an appropriately-sized trident. Even worse (and unfortunately unforgivable in my book), Goyo bears a strong resemblance, both in appearance and in general acting style, to Jake Lloyd, the poor unfortunate soul whom George Lucas picked to play Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace. (Also known as, “The Worst Child Actor Ever in the History of the Cinema Including Any and All Cinematic Endeavors That Take Place on Hereto Now Unknown Planets.”) Every time I looked at the screen I experienced a Vietnam-esque flashback to the most painful experience of my movie going life. The desire to cry and then punch the poor kid grew each time he uttered an excruciating sentence and his presence made the final product nearly unbearable for me. His casting is a giant screw-up that, at least for this Star Wars junkie, overshadowed everything else Real Steel had to offer and left a bad taste in my mouth when it was all said and done.