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Feature


Once a modestly successful boxer, Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is out of sorts in the near future year of 2020. Boxing rings are no longer inhabited by humans, but by giant robots operated by radio controls and owned by corporate interests. Charlie has been reduced to a small time conman/gambler with a washed-up boxing robot of his own, which is soon destroyed by a bull belonging to promoter Ricky (Kevin Durand). Soon after, Charlie learns than an ex-girlfriend has died and his estranged son Max’s (Dakota Goyo) guardian status is in question. Uninterested in caring for the boy, Charlie notices that Max’s wealthy aunt Debra (Hope Davis) and uncle Marvin (James Rebhorn) want full custody and takes advantage, asking Marvin for $100k for his stepping aside as guardian. Charlie runs out on his debts (owing thousands), and returns home to childhood friend/love interest Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly), who runs the boxing gym of her deceased father and Charlie's old coach. Here he uses the money to buy a new bot and meets up with Max, who will be staying with him for the remainder of the summer. To his chagrin, Max demands to be a part of his robo-fighting life.

Real Steel
Real Steel’s very existence as a film mirrors its narrative themes. It’s an underdog story in both text and action. The concept sounds so unbelievably trite on paper that any achievements are a gained against all odds. If my watching of the film were a film itself I’d be the villain plotting against Real Steel based on preconceived notions of the participants and their previous achievements. Chief among these is director Shawn Levy. A lot of people blurt out ‘Brett Ratner’ when thinking up the most generic, mediocre major motion picture director working today, but I think Levy is the current king of blasé (at the very least he’s better than Len Wiseman). He has talent in moving massive motion picture productions along the correct track, but every film he’s made is just the definition of ordinary. The only reason I can’t think of a more faceless working director than Levy is that such people are so faceless we don’t know their names in the first place (reportedly up-and-coming heir to the mediocrity crown Peter Berg was originally attached to Real Steel).

The most underdogish element, however, is the story, which sounds a whole lot like a half-assed adaptation of the old Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots toy. The box art features a quote from uber-hack critic Pete Hammond stating ‘It’s Rocky with robots…’. This is meant as an incentive, but sounds entirely insipid and encompasses everything I feared from the project. In these terms my assumptions were mostly correct and, minus the soft-sci-fi angle that is robots, Real Steel is mostly interchangeable with any number of other post- Rocky underdog story (including the glut of dance movies that have taken over the market recently). You can set your watch to these plot mechanics (the third act conflict appears at almost exactly the 90 minute mark). I also feared that the definitively holds barred, hand-to-hand battles would pale in comparison to Michael Bay’s Transformers series (the size of the action being the only saving grace of those terrible films). Levy does a good job establishing an entirely un-Bay tone early in his film (which plenty would argue is too stoic), so his smaller scale robobattles don’t really garner all that much comparison. Levy’s lack of cinematic voice actually helps this particular production. He shoots the special effects driven fights as if he were making a traditional human-based boxing flick, and avoids over-cutting or shaking his camera arbitrarily. If it weren’t for all the state of the art digital effects, the action sequences in Real Steel could easily be confused for any number of ‘80s released movies, and I mean this as a huge compliment. I didn’t get that full-on rush of adrenaline the best fight films give me, but I’ll admit to a handful of chills.

Real Steel
Arguably even more important than his work with the boxing action, Levy does a decent job working through the melodrama with semi-Spielbergian grace (not a surprise, since Spielberg offered some assistance to the production). He doesn’t wink and nod to the audience, which goes a long way to ensure the goofy metaphors don’t fall on their face too often. The heavy-handed ‘80s quality (similar to that of the other Spielberg-lite summer of 2011 release – Super 8) exhausted me at times, but I don’t have a lot of patience for that kind of stuff, so the fact that I wasn’t entirely disgusted says a lot about the film’s overall quality. The actors bring similar game to the table, building up their best performances with not a lot of material. Hugh Jackman (who is a bit of an underdog himself following movies like Australia and X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is the most successful, pulling off the charming asshole early in the film and moving semi-believably into good man territory. He’s not exactly trying his best, but he’s doing a good job being himself and that smile could melt an iceberg. Little Dakota Goyo doesn’t always overcome the inherently obnoxious quality of his character, but at his best tugs the heart strings without too much kiddie-ham and gives some genuinely funny line readings throughout the film. The supporting cast isn’t particularly memorable, but Kevin Durand continues his streak as the best actor in the movies he appears in. On the not so good side, Evangeline Lilly and Jackman have so little chemistry I was confused enough to think she was playing his sister for most of the film.

Real Steel

Video


Levy’s last film was Date Night, which was shot using the inferior (as far as my eyes are concerned) Panavision Genesis HD camera. The transfer on that disc was rough with artefacts and ghosting problems. This time, the director opts for superior Sony CineAlta HD cameras, which feature better blends and less problematic edges. This is an extremely sharp and clean image, featuring incredibly intricate details, vibrant colours, and deep blacks. Details are vast and complex in both close-up and wide angles, including a whole lot of natural texture in metal, grass, asphalt, and even clothing stitches. Levy and Academy Award winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore resist the call of the orange and teal demon, but take another over-used digital grading route with a green and gold overall tint. The gold tint looks a little silly to me, but the colour quality is rich, the gradations are smooth, and the elements are elaborately separated. Blue and red highlights pop beautifully, and the highest contrasted blacks are brilliant. There is some minor, blocky digital noise overall, especially in the warmest and brightest daylight shots, but overall cleanliness is optimum. My only complaint pertains to the excessive darkness of some of the night scenes, where minor highlights still stand out, but overall image quality is lost in blackness.

Real Steel

Audio


Real Steel comes fitted with an impressive DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack. This mix gets off to a strong start early, as the credits roll over footage of Jackman driving to and through a carnival. Against the soft, warm music is the steady bass hum of his car with subtle surround and stereo movement from the carnival rides. This sets the stage for the bulk of the film, which is only particularly showy during the fight sequences. The sequence in which Charlie and Max steal parts from a scrap yard is a great example of a mixed realist and stylistic approach to sound, including incredibly realistic storm effects along with buzzing robotic effects. The fights are a different story. The sound designers clearly paid attention to the Transformers films in prepping their robot battles, but also take minor pains to not entirely rip off the now very familiar sounds of Autobots and Decepticons. The robots each have their own ‘breathing’ quality, their servos each have specific twitters, and every arm has its own swing sound. The movement in the fights is aggressive and the metal on metal connections are chest crushing in their LFE impact. The fight scenes also feature a lot of roaring crowd sound that moves successfully with the camera to create the appropriate swirl of noise. Danny Elfman’s score isn’t particularly standout, but is impressive in its eclectic nature and continuously well mixed.

Real Steel

Extras


The Blu-ray extras begin with a Second Screen commentary featuring director Shawn Levy. This was either not working or not available at the time of this review. I’m not a fan of Levy’s, but he’s usually a decent commentator, so I expect something decent when the time comes.

Countdown to the Fight: The Charlie Kenton Story (13:50, HD) is a mock-TV special/documentary that features members of the cast discussing the roll up to the climatic fight, with a specific focus on Charlie’s upbringing through the boxing world. It’s a bit overlong, but captures the feel of similar featurettes that come before major sporting events in real life and Jackman impresses with his in character performance. The Making of Metal Valley (14:10, HD) is a behind the scenes look at the Metal Valley sequence, including production design, pre-viz, digital and practical effects, shooting, next day editing, and stunts. It includes interviews with director Shawn Levy, producer Mary McLaglen, production designer Tom Meyer, special effects supervisors Joe DiGaetano and Eric Nash, stunt coordinators Garret Warren and Eric Hedeyat, stunt woman Kelli Barksdale, 1st AD Josh McLaglen, and editor Dean Zimmerman. Building the Bots (5:40, HD) features Stan Winston’s legacy replacement John Rosengrant, Levy, Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo, Meyer, and writer John Gatens, discussing the production of the full scale robot production and mechanics. There’s also a bunch of footage with Steven Spielberg helping Levy work through the effects. Sugar Ray Leonard: Cornerman’s Champ (6:20, HD) features real life boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard working with the production to design fights, and train Jackman and the stunt team.

The extras are completed with a single extended scene, and a series of scenes that make up a deleted subplot (17:50, HD), both featuring introductions with Levy, a blooper reel (2:40, HD), and Disney and DreamWorks trailers.

Real Steel

Overall


Real Steel isn’t a terrible film, but I don’t really get the surprisingly positive reviews it garnered on its initial release. Was it a matter of low expectations, or did people get a genuine rise out of the predictable robot on robot action? Director Shawn Levy has achieved quite a bit with the concept, and the special effects are pretty fantastic, but I didn’t get a lot more out of the experience. That said, fans should be very happy with the 1080p video quality, the aggressive 7.1 DTS-HD soundtrack, and it’s also possible that the not-yet-available Disney Second Screen option is quite amazing.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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