‘Real Steel’ is really sillyMovie Review Thursday, October 6th, 2011
Hugh Jackman confuses me; and I think about him a lot. I’d say that much of my semi-obsession with him is that he’s ridiculously hot – tall, furry, ruggedly handsome, built like an Olympic athlete, all with a smile that makes you forgive even his worst stinkers, like Van Helsing or Deception. Part is that he has played, to perfection I think, one of my favorite characters ever, the superhero Wolverine.
Then there’s his rather extraordinary theater work. His baritone gives me goose bumps and those long legs make his dancing almost Tommy Tune-like, and he can project his emotions to the rafters. He was simply brilliant in and won a Tony for The Boy From Oz, a maudlin but entertaining biopic of the Australian pop singer Peter Allen who was gay, married to Liza Minnelli, and died of AIDS in 1992. (I wept in the theater. Openly.) This role only encouraged the powerful and persistent rumors that he’s gay and that his wife is just a really understanding beard, an idea that makes him all the more titillating.
But I cannot fathom how he chooses his film roles; why someone as versatile, talented and box-office powerful would choose to follow the first two X-Men movies with the wretched vampires-and-monsters action dud Van Helsing; to go from the under-watched but excellent Christopher Nolan magician movie The Prestige to the pretentiously silly thriller Deception, or bother with Real Steel, his latest. Does he have a terrible agent? Or does he have terrible taste? What is he trying to prove?
In Real Steel, it seems that he’s trying to be a family film star, which is not usually what you do when you’re an international mega star who can actually act; it’s what The Rock does and Arnold Schwarzenegger did because body builders and kids are funny together and there aren’t other options. Worse, Real Steel is basically a remake of one of the worst Sylvester Stallone stinkers, the 1989 father-son arm-wrestling drama Over The Top. Real Steel has the same plot, with boxing robots replacing arm wrestling.
Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, an aging former boxer who now barely ekes a living remotely controlling 15-foot-tall robots who box. This is 10 or 15 years in the future, when robots who look a lot like the Transformers have replaced humans in the ring. Charlie is particularly down on his luck when his ex-girlfriend dies, and he’s called to do something about the son they had together. Max’s aunt Debra (Hope Davis) wants custody, and Charlie is fine with this, but he sees an opportunity to make some money by asking the aunt’s rich husband Marvin to pay him $100,000 for Charlie’s signature on the custody papers. Marvin agrees if Charlie will take Max for the summer; Marvin really wants to spend a few months in Italy. Charlie uses the first payment of $50,000 to buy a new robot, and he thinks he can ditch Max with his friend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), the daughter of his former trainer. But Max is a lot smarter and world-weary than any other 11-year-old boy, and he insists on coming with Charlie on his robot-boxing tour of America’s heartland. One thing leads to another, and the plot is exactly what you’d expect from a sports movie that is also a father-son redemption drama.
Shawn Levy, using John Gatin’s screenplay based on a 1956 short story by Richard Matheson, keeps the film rolling along at a good pace, with some rather gorgeous visuals and expert, if oddly hyper-violent, boxing sequences. (Transformers 3 has shown that you can get a PG-13 if the Tarantino-like violence is mechanical.) Jackman is, as always, charming and rakish and charismatic, but it’s such a waste on so many clichéd emotions and obvious lines. It doesn’t help that Dakota Goyo, who plays Max, is awkward in his acting. I didn’t believe that he understood some of his more elevated lines. Still, I can imagine 10-year-old boys will love the movie. But their parents will be rolling their eyes … except when Jackman takes off his shirt. That’s almost worth the price of admission.
Directed by Shawn Levy
Written by John Gatins
Starring Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly and Dakota Goyo
Opens Oct. 7
At your local multiplex
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