DIRECTED BY SHAWN LEVYSTARRING: HUGH JACKMAN, DAKOTA GOYO, EVANGELINE LILY, ANTHONY MACKIE, OLGA FONDA, KARL YUNE with KEVIN DURAND, JAMES REBHORN and HOPE DAVIS
The closest association ‘Real Steel’ might have with the Oscars is that both happen to take place in the same country. That, or it might’ve been nominated for a couple of technical awards – like sound mixing or editing or special effects, because the film is a fairly good audio-visual achievement. In the event of my Oscar-lead-up, I should probably have picked up a ‘Best Film’ nominee from the past that I hadn’t discussed – like ‘War Horse’ or ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ – or even bothered watching.
The last film I took up to analyze – David O. Russell’s ‘the Silver Linings Playbook’ (scroll down for review or click here) – found myself at an all-time low on the review-scale. I found out what was going wrong. This year, I find, has had very little to inspire. Every year, I try to catch up on the ‘best films’ made with one desire – to come across something that can truly represent this generation, this era, this paradigm to completion, and not merely on a technological scale.
‘Life of Pi’ was supposed to be that movie. It didn’t work for me. ‘Argo’ would be Hollywood's pride, mixing the studio-picture with American consciousness. Tarantino hasn’t ever attempted to dissociate himself from the film world and represent humanity on the whole. ‘Lincoln’, again, sounds like a mix of both – of classic Hollywood storytelling and American values. I would not go to the lengths of calling these films jingoistic, but you get what I’m saying, right?
There’s a whole lot of absentees. Ramin Bahrani – without whom it’s been a painful three years – needs to come back. So do Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. It’s too soon to expect Thomas McCarthy, after ‘Win Win’ the year before last – delightful; one of the year’s best, easily. Alexander Payne has a film coming soon, set in his hometown. It’s the second time I’ve referred to him on a review, in two days. Not good.
I’ve always loved cinema. I hate to sound distinguishing, but for someone who loves film, I haven’t been content. I think the creative world can do better. There’s a lot of films I haven’t watched. There’s a lot of films I don’t even have access to. Given that, maybe I’m selling it short. But that’s only because I don’t have the luxury of patience. It’s been a year since I’ve had a film experience that’s made me truly belong. The last time I had that was when I watched Marc Webb’s ‘the Amazing Spider-Man’ – a story of youth, mortality and crazy romance. In a world where superhero movies have bitter, morbid love stories, it was a kiss of life exchanged between young guns firing at the same time.
Contrast that with a film that kept saying “life’s hard enough as it is,” ‘the Silver Linings Playbook’ made it harder. I struggle with down-to-earth fiction. I think it takes a tall story to really bring one down to the ground. That, or life itself. I think it’s a thin line – I’m actually debating it inside my head. What Woody Allen could do with ‘Midnight in Paris’, he didn’t do with ‘Manhattan.’
Okay, that's not quite true. It's out of order as well. I can’t discuss filmmaking trends with Allen as an example, even if he has shown changes with time (at his own pace).
The point of contention is this. On the one hand, a slight stretch of imagination in a film that promises reality seems unforgivable. On the other, we have those that never attempt to come close to the ground and yet find a way to appeal to the deepest of your senses.
‘Real Steel’ is one such film. It’s set in a future that looks like the past. Culture gets accentuated – human beings get more rustic as robots resemble them to the best of their ability. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) manages one that’s as untrustworthy as he is – it takes a good, solid beating, he can’t patch it up anymore. He moves on. One more to the dirty pile. Son Max Kenton (Dakota Goyo) arrives, bringing with him this ancient-looking, puny specimen that shows some traits they hadn’t seen in robots before – the ability to obey and understand, the latter kept a secret throughout the film, part of a punch-line.
He calls the robot ‘Atom.’ It looks nice and friendly. If it had lips, it would smile. Max shares a bond with it that’s neither made to sound too special, nor left unstated. He brings it to Charlie, a washed-out boxer from the golden era, made in Hollywood. Deep in debt and no robot to spare, Charlie is pretty much ‘anything goes.’ He goes with Atom, teaching him boxing in something that’s, interestingly, called the ‘shadow mode.’ It means the robot would imitate anything that he does, where what it does is mere shadow.
I spoke about jingoism, right? Well, the bad guy here is a bot called Zeus that has Darth Vader written all over it – in a film that’s all about father and son, it could’ve well been Atom’s dad, for all you know. Zeus is of Japanese design – made by this man called Tak Mashido (Karl Yune) – and is managed by a Russian tycoon called Farra Lemkova (Olga Fonda), two people who might as well have been talking exhibits in a display of stereotypes. There’s a cowboy who calls a black man (Anthony Mackie) ‘homey’ who calls him ‘partner’ in return. They bond over a hundred grand the partner wouldn’t cough up.
Alright, one too many challengers in one too many big fights over the years. Agreed. ‘Real Steel’ almost faithfully (deliberately?) follows ‘Rocky’ with its plotline. ‘Rocky’ was the everyday man’s struggle for recognition. ‘Real Steel’ is a man’s search for himself, there being no surprise in the place where he finds himself again. The robot has twinkling blue eyes that seem to invite you into its depths. So does the boy. It’s not the first time that Shawn Levy has handled something like this – he directed ‘Night at the Museum’ and its sequel, both of which stick to the theme of man discovering himself in something seemingly inanimate. “I just want you to fight for me,” says Max, in the scene just before the last act. Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) didn’t need to be told this. Neither does Charlie, but then Max has the bigger mouth.
There are places where ‘Real Steel’ exasperates you with its faith in Hollywood clichés. But it has an undercurrent that’s fairly consistent. What can’t win a fist-fight beats you with a show of heart, in the manner of saying too much as opposed to never saying what needs to be said.
To Mr. Levy and the ‘Real Steel’ camp, technology is about holograms and fancy screens where the wires don’t show. Atom is an old-timer even in that respect. He steams up like a bad radiator, his wires spark and his eyes flicker as he staggers like he’s disorientated – at one point, the commentator actually uses that word, with quite a bit of ‘almost-human’ references thrown in as well. Somehow, you wish it was a little under-played a little. Like ‘Cinderella Man’ maybe. Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe) would make a fair Charlie, give or take a few pounds. And I’m most definitely not comparing boxing styles here.
‘Real Steel’ is ‘Rocky’ with Adrian replaced by a brat to make it more about men than before. Where, among a bunch of beasts and bureaucrats, man triumphs. Well, almost triumphs, with scope for betterment – betterment that means getting together, holding close to those who matter as Hollywood defines them, in a world that won’t go beyond the boxing ring. It’s a sturdy-but-modest piece of furniture with a load of varnish it could’ve done without. And it passes woodshop, with honours.
The film played on TV when I desperately thought I needed a break from this year’s monotony and the overflowing list of films I’m yet to watch. It’s the tall film I thought I needed to bring me back to ground level. Having sparred with robots, I should – hopefully – be able to deal with humans better now.