Real Steel
Touchstone // PG-13 // $39.99 // January 24, 2012
Review by Adam Tyner | posted January 16, 2012
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For a few minutes there, I thought I was gonna love Real Steel. I mean, the opening sequence of the flick has an eight-foot-tall robot punching a bull in the face. Okay, okay, you've gotta struggle with Kevin Durand doing some kind of deliriously over-the-top ger-hyuk-hyuk-Southern-fried accent at the rodeo, and a gaggle of obnoxiously precocious little girls are somewhere in there too, but whatever. I've watched
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a lot of movies over the past thirtysomething years, and I can honestly say I've never seen a bull-punching robot before. That's exactly what I wanted -- what I needed -- so bravo, Real Steel. Bravo.

After that, though...? I could practically picture Jack Lipnick spelling out the premise. "Charlie Kenton's a washed-up boxer. Give me his hopes...his dreams. Naturally he gets mixed up with a bad element and a romantic interest or else an orphan. Oh, and robots." Real Steel is pretty much exactly like one of those hyperformulaic, completely interchangeable feel-good boxing flicks from the '40s. Yeah, you've got Charlie (Hugh Jackman), the boxer whose best days are years and years behind him in the rearview mirror. You've got Max (Dakota Goyo), the plucky quasi-orphan he's supposed to protect and who teaches Charlie about life and love and responsibility and stuff. You've got Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), the dame waiting for him back home who gives all these solemn speeches about how she loves this knucklehead but can't keep being there for him. She's got no more left, Charlie! You've even got a dead surrogate-father-mentor-type for good measure! A hopeless underdog gets back on his feet, rises through the ranks, gets a shot at the title, and shows all those arrogant,
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money-grubbing, egomaniacal nogoodniks what it means to means to have heart. The bad guys get what's coming to 'em, and everyone learns lots of valuable life lessons and lives happily ever after. Fade to black; roll credits. The big change in Real Steel, robots.

See, with the rise of MMA and fighting getting all bareknuckled and bloody, the sweet science of boxing wasn't really drawing crowds anymore. Audiences were screaming out for no holds barred brawls. People can't really rip off each other's heads or dismember each other in the ring, but robots totally can. Flesh-and-blood boxers like Charlie Kenton became buggy whips with puffy red gloves. Charlie's tried to scrape by in this brave new world by taking control of his own rusty robot fighter, but he can't resist pushing his luck. The guy's something like a hundred grand in debt to kneecap-smashing gambler-types. His last robo-boxer was already on its last legs, but now...well, it doesn't have any legs, period. Charlie's always the type to land on his feet somehow, and when he's reconnected with the kid he barely knew he had, he's able to sell Max for just enough scratch to buy a shiny new fighter. It's just that Charlie's stuck with that streetwise little hustler for the summer, and it turns out that the tyke knows his way around the robot boxing game. When Charlie loses his pricey 'bot in his very first fight, Max rustles up a fighter of his very own. Okay, Atom is a creaky, ancient sparring bot fished out of a
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scrapheap, but Max believes in him. He may not be the biggest and he may not be the strongest, but hey, America loves an underdog, right? As luck would have it, America really, really loves an underdog, and after just a couple of months of battling it out in the underground circuit, Atom has a shot at the title, squaring off against the indomitable, unstoppable, and kind of aptly-named champion Zeus.

I'll say this for Real Steel: it looks pretty incredible. I mean, there are a couple dozen robots scattered around in here, each with their own very distinct and very unique looks. The movie doesn't skimp on the robo-boxing, the visual effects are world-class, and Real Steel benefits immensely by mixing physical, animatronic robots in with the CGI. There's a sense of...I don't know, immediacy and heightened reality that come with that sort of approach. I'm totally the type to geek out about the concept of robots slugging it out, and the fight choreography is pretty spectacular too. Unlike the Transformers flicks where the camerawork and editing are so spastic that the brawls are visually incomprehensible, Real Steel is clean and coherent. In terms of production values and post-production craftsmanship, I really don't have anything to complain
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about Real Steel at all.

The problem is kind of...everything else. Straight off the bat, I should say that Real Steel is exactly the movie it sets out to be. Director Shawn Levy wanted to make a big-hearted underdog sports flick in the most classic sense, so when I say that Real Steel plays exactly like a '40s boxing movie, that's not an insult so much as a "well, yeah, of course it does". If I were a wide-eyed eight-year-old, I'd be lugging around a Real Steel lunchbox and have Real Steel robo-boxer toys all over my floor and probably be playing the Real Steel video game right about now. It's just that...well, I'm not eight anymore. My problem with Real Steel isn't that it latches onto every hoary underdog sports cliché in The Big Book of Hoary Underdog Sports Clichés. A formula is just a framework anyway, and there are lots of really compelling things you can do inside that sandbox. It's just that Real Steel's visual and technical ambition isn't matched anywhere else in the screenplay. There's not a single surprise lurking anywhere in Real Steel's two hour and change runtime. Its characters are thinly sketched, not needing more than a word or two to fully sum up. The bad guys are reduced to a series of over-the-top accents. Max is a plucky, determined more-or-less-an-orphan who just needs a little love. Bailey is a pretty girl who sticks it out even when she knows she shouldn't. Charlie -- well, and the robot boxer Atom too -- is the rusty, has-been fighter no one believed in but who shows everyone what he's made of. I mean, that's it. There's no dimension to them beyond that, and in the place of characterization is way too much unearned, cornball sentimentality. All of the relationships between these characters feel like heavy-handed cinematic constructions...I mean, I could never lose myself in the deliberate, calculated emotions that Real Steel lobs out here. I kind of actively disliked Max, one of those smarmy, overbearing, smarter-than-every-adult-in-the-room tween types. It's just hard to get invested in characters that feel this artificial, and as brilliant as the visuals so frequently are, they aren't enough of a distraction from how uninspired everything else about Real Steel is. Rent It.

C'mon, Real Steel is a nine-figure visual effects spectacle; of course it looks phenomenal on Blu-ray. The digital photography is dazzlingly detailed and bolstered by deep, inky blacks. There's a real sense of depth and dimensionality here...about as great as it gets without having to slap on a pair of 3D glasses. I just love the look of the movie, propelled by Avatar's Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore. I'm really taken in by all the clever interplay between light and shadow, and Real Steel thankfully shrugs off the stale teal/orange tint that's heaped on so many other blockbusters anymore. A truly spectacular effort.

Real Steel gobbles up just about every spare byte on this dual-layer Blu-ray disc. The AVC encode is split into a slew of different pieces, I guess because certain stretches of the film have been localized to better play in other countries. Real Steel's theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1 has been preserved on Blu-ray.

Real Steel is rockin' a 24-bit, 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. I don't have those two extra channels in the back, so I can't really comment
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how much of a wallop they have on the overall sonic experience. From what I can hear, though...well, I'm not left with a lot to gripe about. Every last element in the mix is reproduced cleanly, clearly, and distinctly throughout. Since the overwhelming majority of the action is taking place directly in front of the viewer, it follows that the sound design keeps things weighted towards the front channels. The surrounds are teeming with atmospheric color, though, fleshing out a very strong sense of place, and they do a terrific job beefing up Danny Elfman's score and the cock-rock scattered around the movie. There are some nice little mechanical whirring sounds that pop up in the rear channels at times as well. With all these robots stomping around and throwing hydraulic right hooks, it kinda goes without saying that bass response is very substantial. The LFE doesn't rattle the room, exactly, but it packs a pretty mean kick just the same. Definitely one to crank up.

Also included are a stereo descriptive video service track, a Dolby Digital 5.1 dub in Spanish, and a Quebeçois-friendly DTS-HD HR 7.1 French track. Subtitles are served up in English (SDH), French, and Spanish.

Although I'll freely admit to not thinking much of Real Steel as a movie, I really enjoyed every last one of these extras. Exclusive to this Blu-ray release are...
  • Real Steel Second Screen: Ringside with Director Shawn Levy: As I sit here writing this, at least, I guess the switch hasn't been flipped on for this Second Screen feature. The iPad app isn't up in the iTunes store, and is coming up blank. I can only guess that it somehow builds off of Shawn Levy's audio commentary since it's on the DVD but not directly accessible on this Blu-ray disc. Not sure what else to say here. Sorry.

  • Countdown to the Fight: The Charlie Kenton Story (14 min.; HD): Airing on ESPN as the big Atom/Zeus title fight ramps up, this mini-doc recaps the rise and fall of Charlie Kenton's flesh-and-blood boxing career. It's done completely in-character and does a terrific job building off of what's established in the movie proper.

  • Sugar Ray Leonard: Cornerman's Champ (6 min.; HD): The legendary fighter was enlisted to help Hugh Jackman look more convincing as a boxer and also served as an advisor for the 'bot-on-'bot brawls.

  • Deleted and Extended Scenes (18 min.; HD): Director Shawn Levy pops up beforehand to explain why the opening sequence was trimmed down and why one subplot was gutted altogether. The alternate intro mostly just gives the three precocious lil' tykes a chance to make some poop jokes. The yanked storyline swirls around Max's bagful of butterfly jewelry that the little schemer uses to manipulate people. To be honest, it is kind of sloppy -- like, why does the kid need forty of those things? -- and that weepy sentimentality and father/son bonding is already covered pretty well elsewhere. Kinda interesting to see how the final edit was able to support an entire storyline being chopped out, though, especially since a lot of the scenes containing 'em are still in the movie in some form.
The following extras are on the DVD as well as the Blu-ray disc:
  • Making of Metal Valley (14 min.; HD): Rather than trudge through the usual behind-the-scenes formula, Real Steel instead focuses intensely on one specific
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    sequence. I prefer this approach too; when you're trying to cover the making of a two hour-plus movie, especially one of this scale, so much inevitably gets glossed over. Narrowing its focus allows this featurette to cover more unexpected ground while still giving viewers a very strong sense of what goes into putting together a project this ambitious. Interestingly enough, this making-of doesn't take a look at one of the more obvious sequences like a robot-on-robot brawl. Instead it charts the filming of Max and Charlie scavenging through a cyber-scrapyard to piece together a new fighter and the chaos that quickly follows. "Making of Metal Valley" covers the virtual mountain that's been built for a dizzying fall, the elaborate stuntwork, the crazy camera rigs that were setup, the editing...really comprehensive and really interesting.

  • Building the Bots (6 min.; HD): The set's second featurette delves into the design and fabrication behind the robots showcased in Real Steel. Taking some cues from Steven Spielberg and the success he had with Jurassic Park, the robots in the film are a mix of CG and tactile animatronics, and the folks at Legacy Effects offer a terrific guided tour through it all.

  • Bloopers (3 min.; HD): The last of the shared extras is a pretty great blooper reel, filled with lots of clowning around and the cast careening way over-the-top with their cartoonish accents.
...and then there's the mystery of the commentary track.
  • Audio Commentary: Again, this commentary might be on the Blu-ray disc as part of the Second Screen feature. Disney apparently hasn't turned that on as I write this, so I can't test to see. Even if it is, that means you have to watch Real Steel with a laptop or iPad handy...otherwise, you're outta luck, at least on Blu-ray. The commentary is readily accessible on the DVD, though, so I just gave it a spin there.

    I wouldn't exactly call myself a card-carrying fan of director Shawn Levy's work, but the guy gives great commentary. There's not a lull in the discussion for two hours straight, and his comments are consistently sharp and insightful throughout. Levy tackles just about everything too: Real Steel's retro-futuristic aesthetic, the intermingling of CG with animatronic robots, the fight choreography, music, characterization, cinematography, production design, and even the "big-hearted populism" he aimed for that I guess I spent half the review grousing about. Very thorough and a far more entertaining listen than I waltzed in expecting it to be.

The version of Real Steel reviewed here is a two disc set: one anamorphic widescreen DVD and one shiny, new Blu-ray disc. A pricier three disc set tacks on a digital copy and...nothing else? For $5 more? Hmmm.

The Final Word
The short answer is that Real Steel is a lazy, clumsily sentimental, cliché-riddled screenplay brought to life with some dazzling technical craftsmanship. I'm sure the junior set will get swept away by the spectacle of it all, but to me, Real Steel is just a glossier take on a story I've seen a couple hundred thousand times already. Rent It.

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