Sunday, October 23, 2011

Real Steel

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 Stars) Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's review -

Real Steel (directed by Shawn Levy, screenplay by John Gatins, story by Dan Gilroy, based on the short story Steel by Richard Matheson) set in the future / not quite yet present and about animatronic boxing robots is a movie that on the surface seems like a potentially great "father and son" film.  For whoever has ever played a boxing video game would not be fascinated by the prospect that sometime in the near future one will be able use those video controls to control an actual 8 foot tall, titanium-steel, piston driven robotic boxer?

Yet, as one delves deeper, the film could actually be quite disturbing.  For the movie is about a man, Charlie Kenton (played by Hugh Jackman), presented to us as washed-up boxer (but more generally he could be any man) who never really grew up and seems to get away with it.  And I would imagine that a fair number of people, especially women, who've been disappointed over the years by men who seem to have never grown-up would find the film rather frustrating.

Charlie, said protagonist, had a promising career as a boxer almost becoming a real contender but he never quite broke through.  And it's clear that he made some real mistakes both when his career was on the rise and after it went into decline.

At the beginning of the film, we find him sleeping in his truck reduced to being a second rate promoter of robotic boxing literally on the “carnival circuit,” and owing serious money (tens of thousands of dollars a piece) to all kinds of people wanting to be repaid.  After losing another $20,000 on a stupid bet with a “county fair” rodeo operator that his remote controlled 8-foot biped animatronic boxing robot, that was clearly a garage creation (or at least had definitely seen better days) could beat-up or otherwise "robot handle" a 2000 pound bull, he tries to flee the scene.

While running toward his truck from those who he owes the 20-grand, he gets a phone call from a lawyer informing him that an ex-girlfriend of his had died.  One gets the sense that Charlie probably had a number of ex-girlfriends out there and of those anyone of them could have come to a sad end.  So why would this particular news about this particular ex-girlfriend matter to Charlie, speeding off in his truck with shards of his smashed robot in its hold?

Well, it turns out that he had a son, Max (played by Dakota Goyo) with this ex-girlfriend.  Again, it's possible that Charlie, low-life that he appeared to be, could have had other children with other ex-girlfriends out there.  Indeed, Charlie had never visited or supported Max up to this point.  However (single mothers abandoned by your former husbands/boyfriends do take note...) since his former girlfriend died without a will, Max stood to fall to Charlie's custody, a responsibility that Charlie would appear to have been neither interested in, nor capable of taking on.  So why not just ignore the phone call?  Well, the lawyer on the phone was of his ex-girlfriend’s sister Debra (played by Hope Davis) who wanted Charlie to drive over to Dallas to sign papers handing custody of Max to her.  Charlie, fleeing from people who wanted to hurt/kill him and who (it turns out) had some past connections with Dallas, decides to go there to both "do the right thing" and ... to "grasp at straws."

This turns out to be a remarkably good decision for Charlie (even if he arrived at in a remarkably random yet self-serving manner) because Debra had a rich boyfriend/fiance, Marvin (played by James Redhorn) who Charlie quickly ascertains would be willing to shell-out some serious cash -- $100,000 to be exact -- if Charlie sign-overed custody of Max to Debra.  Yes, he was right.  But alas, Marvin asks him for the favor, to “take care of Max” for the summer while he and Debra fly-out to Tuscany where he hoped to marry Debra before coming home.  Charlie happy to be getting some life-saving cash, agrees, while Max, 11, who’s never seen Charlie before (and pissed-off that Charlie keeps thinking he's 8-9) is not thrilled.  But he’s a kid, so he has to take it ...

Marvin pays Charlie $50K right away, promising the other $50K when he and Debra get back from Tuscany at the end of the summer.

So what does Charlie do with the $50K he just received?   Well he certainly doesn't use it to pay off any of his debts, including to the one to the rodeo goons who want to kill him.  Instead he blows $45K on another boxing robot, perhaps much better than the one that got trashed by the bull in the rodeo rink but still a seemingly reckless "investment."  He asks that this better robot (apparently a former champion robot from Japan) be delivered to the address the gym (also in Dallas) where he used to train.  The plot thickens ... 

That gym is now run by Bailey Tallet (played by Evangeline Lilly) the daughter of his former trainer.  She too has become something of an expert in robotic boxing though like her father acting more like a "trainer" interested in the optimization and maintenance of boxing robots than in actually animating them.  Charlie, a former boxer prefers, of course, to use the robots to box.  (The robots in this movie are still remote controlled, in much the same way as one would control a "boxer" in a video game).

It turns out that Charlie and Bailey have a history as well.  She too is deeply disappointed in what Charlie's become, but it's obvious that she's had a life-long crush on him.   She's also able to provide Max with some positive information about Charlie, who Max again has never known.  He had, indeed, been a talented boxer until age, injuries (and perhaps replacement by those robotic boxers... ) brought his career to an end.  Retooled, however, and using those animatronic robots to box, he still showed talent.  However it was clear that his decisions of how to use that talent were clearly flawed.

It would seem that Charlie had never really grown-up and perhaps because of limited intelligence was incapable of doing so.  It becomes up to Max and Bailey to actually help to get on the right path ...

And it isn't easy.  Charlie takes that new $45K Japanese robot and almost immediately trashes it in a match that even 11-year-old Max thought was a stupid risk.  "You didn't even really know how to control it yet?" a frustrated Max tells at him.

Yet, Charlie's "boyishness" isn't altogether a bad thing.  It's clear that Bailey still loves him perhaps indeed because by not growing-up (or having such difficulty doing so) he continues to remind her of what he used to be.  And his "boyishness" actually helps him, despite everything, to connect with his son, because how WAY COOL it would be to be with a dad who controls 8 foot, 2000 lb animatronic robots for a living!

So despite everything, one kinda hopes (or probably the men in the audience, kinda hope) for Charlie's redemption.  And redemption does appear to come, starting in truly dramatic fashion:

On the way home after trashing that $45K Japanese robot, at night, in the midst of a driving rainstorm, Charlie and Max go to a junk-yard to look for parts to fix him (and the other much cheaper robot that Charlie had trashed at the county fair).  In the midst of their garbage picking, Max comes across a discarded old "gen-2" robot (by the time of the film, the robots are of a "4th generation") that he's surprised he's able to start.  The two take the old school robot home.  And with that new (old) robot, the rest of the movie begins ...

The rest of the movie becomes something of a robotic remake of Rocky.  But it also becomes a story of a man, a boy and his WAY COOL 8 foot (pet) boxing robot.

It all makes for a nice movie for men and perhaps a plea for understanding.  But I would imagine that a lot of women would find the movie very frustrating because Charlie never really grows-up.  He changes, somewhat.  But the others around him change at least as much as him.

Still the movie does end well, coming from Hollywood after all.

But the movie does raise for me this set of questions: What if Charlie, a boxer after all, a boxer who had found himself replaced by robots (who even made peace with this professionally, "rolled with the punches," and became fairly good animator/controller of those "boxing robots") was really _unable_ to change to the degree that many of us would have liked?   What then?  In the movie, the people around Charlie change as well.   Is that enabling him?  Or is that showing him mercy? 

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