Friday, October 14, 2011

Real Steel

Alternate Title:  Rock 'em Sock 'em Rocky

One sentence synopsis:  An ex-boxer and his estranged kid try to take a broken-down sparring bot to the championship of the World Robot Boxing League.

Things Havoc liked:    Hugh Jackman has been in his share of bad films (Wolverine and Swordfish come to mind), but I've never thought that he was bad, just unable to elevate the material. And when Jackman is good (X-men 2, The Fountain, the Prestige), he's quite good. Headliner as he is in this film, I have to admit that he's quite good. Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, who is a douchebag (no, not a lovable douchebag, a douchebag), an underground robot boxing promoter who scams and steals and does all the things movie douchebags do. Yet despite being a douchebag, unrepentantly, Jackson brings an excellent performance here, such that the movie doesn't have to soften him in order to get the audience to like him. I'm actually impressed.

But not as impressed as I am by Jackson's co-star, a kid named Dakota Goyo, playing Charlie's estranged 11-year old son Max. Child actors are dangerous in any movie, especially a movie that is transparently about cute kids and robots. Moreover, this particular kid has the unfortunate characteristic of reminding me of Jake Lloyd from the Phantom Menace (and we all know what a cinematic masterwork that was). Yet, to my surprise, Goyo nails the role (and it's a much bigger role than one would expect from the trailers) very well. The character fails to lend itself to particular adjectives, he's not "plucky" or "edgy" or "angry" or "cute" though he does at times hit all those notes. The performance, and the interplay with Jackson's character (and with the robot) just... works.

Speaking of the robot(s), the effects in this movie are excellent. That's par for the course these days, but they're excellent regardless, mostly because of the decision to use animatronics where possible and CGI only when necessary. It gives the robots weight and dimension, such that when they fight (or simply run about), we actually feel their existence rather than view video game images. There is none of the cinematographic bullshit that got in the way with the Transformers movies. Fight scenes are shot cleanly and with good lighting, giving us an excellent idea of what's going on. The robots themselves are distinctive, well-designed, and interesting, and their fight choreography (shaped by Sugar Ray Leonard of all people) is excellent and entertaining.

Soundtracks are a dime a dozen, but I did notice in watching this film that this particular soundtrack was excellent. There are some recognizable songs on it, but mostly its a mood-setter soundtrack that blends standard orchestral scores with, of all things, synthesized country ballads. That this is the work of Danny Elfman, a composer of great fame and skill, comes as no surprise, but the music fits the mood shifts of the plot much better than any film of this caliber has a right to.

Oddly enough for a story about pugilistic robots, the plot of this movie is derived in no small part from a famous 1973 movie called Paper Moon, starring real life father-and-daughter Ryan and Tatum O'Neal. An excellent film in its own right (it garnered an Oscar for Tatum), this movie basically blends it with Rocky to produce a movie that's simultaneously about an estranged father and son coming together and about robots boxing. All that I will say here is that the writing in the film is good enough to elevate it above what you would expect a ludicrous combination like this to result in, and the actors carry it off well enough to make it work...

Things Havoc disliked:  ... sometimes.

When I say that this movie is Paper Moon crossed with Rocky, I mean it. It is those movies verbatim, plot point by plot point, woven together to create something simultaneously new and completely predictable. I have never guessed right so many times as to what was going to happen in a movie as I have with this one. I said that the writing in the film is good, and it is, but the plot (as distinct from the writing) is really lackluster. Not only have you seen this all before, you've seen it before so many times that you know exactly what's going to happen. This makes parts of the film (towards the beginning especially, I found), rather painful to sit through

I know I praised the cinematography before, and I meant it, in that it's so rare we see good fight sequences in this age of over-processed CGI. But the reason the cinematography is good in the fights is because the movie uses a very old-school approach to its cinematography (see Paper Moon again). This is good in the fight scenes, but less good in the rest of the movie. It's not that the film is badly shot, far from it, but there is an unconscious language to cinema of inferences and shot constructions, and this movie abuses that language to the point of absurdity. Many shots were almost pretentious in their obvious desire to symbolize things like the gulf between two characters, to the point where I was just waiting for the director to get over his film school textbook and get on with it.

Some of the supporting cast is good and some is less good. The villains in this film are among the latter, stereotyped "evil terse asian supertechstar", "evil russian ice queen mobster" and "evil redneck racist hillbilly" foremost of all. Other than adding something for our audience to root against, they don't do a hell of a lot. This actually undercuts some of the effective design work that went into the bots, as it takes the attention away from the thirteen-foot armored monstrosity trying to beat the heroic underdog into the dirt with pile drivers. That's not an easy thing to do, mind you.

While the writing is good overall, the decision to stick so closely to formula hurts the movie in that there are some sequences that simply cannot work in a modern film, no matter how good your actors and how good your writing. Tearful apology scenes for instance are tremendously hard to do right without a tremendous amount of skill, and chaining the film to older movies with older sensibilities only guarantees that won't be the case here. These moments weren't that common, frankly, but they were still present, and almost cringeworthy when they popped up.

Finally, the product placements in this movie were egregious, even by today's standards. Guys, we get that Dr. Pepper and Budweiser (and ESPN and Droid and Toshiba and Red Bull and fifty others) paid you. At a certain point, enough is enough.

Final thoughts:  *Sigh*

To be honest, I wasn't looking forward to writing this review as I was taking the train home from the movie theater, and most of the reason for that was that, while I was able to portion out and characterize this movie's strengths and weaknesses, the way I have for every film I've reviewed here, I knew I was eventually going to have to come to this section, wherein I would be required to admit that I basically adored every second of this movie the instant I started watching it.

That sound you hear is the sound of my credibility disappearing.

I loved this film. I loved everything about this film. I'm not entirely certain I can explain why. Everything I said above, all the criticisms I made about the pretentious cinematography, about the outright theft of a plot, about the stupid villains and the cringeworthy moments, all of that is true and I don't give a damn. This is the movie I wanted Transformers to be. Fuck, this is the movie I wanted Rocky to be. Nothing here makes sense. Paper Moon crossed with Rocky (plus robots!) makes about as much sense as crossing Total Recall with Driving Miss Daisy, and yet something, something buried deep inside this movie just worked, on a level so profound that I completely forgot everything mean I had said about the film by about the 2/3s mark. Part of it is the acting, which from both Jackman and Goyo is just right. Part of it is the overall design. Yes I whined about the product placement overload, but the design work on the film is awesome regardless. It feels like a real near future, even with a premise this ludicrous. Part of it is the soundtrack, which I cannot rave enough about in doing a fantastic job of buttressing the movie emotionally. And part of it is the writing, which despite the hackneyed plot, feels completely real at all times.

But I think most of it is none of those things, or maybe all of them in aggregate, I don't know. Alfred Hitchcock said that the soul of cinema lies between the shots. Something lies between the shots in this movie, something real and intense and passionate and just plain childish fun. Somewhere along the line, someone associated with this movie loved it enough to insert blood and sweat into polishing it, and the end result shows up on screen. This film was everything a setup like this could possibly be and more, exciting, fun, appealing, everything I wanted the retread movies that trampled on my childhood to be, and were not. Watching this movie, I felt like I was ten years old again, watching awesome robots fight with wide eyes and an open imagination. I suspect someone making this film brought the same mindset towards its creation.

On paper (and maybe even in objective reality), this film should be around a 5.5 or a 6, a decent film but nothing spectacular. After all, everything here has been done before, and bigger, and louder, and more edgy, and more real, and with more cool jump cuts and CGI. All of those things may be true, but goddamnit, these are my reviews, and I will call them as I see them. Call me a sucker. Call me a nostalgic fool. Call me an idiot, I don't care. I loved this film. I loved everything about this film. This is what Transformers should have been.

This is what Transformers once was.

Final Score:  8.5/10

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