Built in the Middle of the Road
Mediocri City is a series of articles in which I review kind-of-alright films and try to determine if they were wrongfully overlooked or rightfully forgotten. There will also be a gaming version.
There’s plenty out there on the ‘net focusing on the bad, and people always line up to praise the greats and the cults. To my knowledge, not much focuses on the middle ground. And this is understandable. It is a greater sin to be forgettable than to be bad. Much of the middle ground is dull, but that doesn’t make it unworthy of analysis.
Don’t think that my recommendations or dissuasions at the end of each article mean I feel the need to arbitrarily group everything as either good or bad. There is a middle ground, and most of the works here inhabit it. It’s just not all works are equally mediocre, and not everyone is the same – some might find certain works worth checking out. Finally like all reviews, this is all opinion.
SCORES & SUCCESS
Rotten Tomatoes: 60% All, 48% Top Critics, 73% Audience
Metacritic: 56/100 Critics, 7.1/10 Audience
I’m not sure Real Steel could be called a failure. While it made back double its budget worldwide, its US gross – always the biggest single taking – didn’t break it even and once the posters started appearing on buses I don’t remember any sort of buzz about it. Maybe I was a little out of the loop, being at university at the time, but neither do I remember it ever coming up in conversation that anyone else had seen it. I don’t know what reception was like in the US, but here it seemed it was overshadowed by more popular October releases Johnny English Reborn, Paranormal Activity 3 and Tintin and then swiftly forgotten about.
Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots The Movie.
That’s what I thought when I first saw the billboards and bus-posters for this and to be honest it’s not too far from the truth. Some years before the film takes place (which is in 2020) someone invented some boxing robots. These quickly replaced human boxing as they were bigger, faster and more brutal – Mike Tyson may have taken a bite out of Evander Holyfield’s ear but he never separated anyone’s head from their shoulders, even in Punch-Out!!
By the time of the film, the official leagues have become Formula 1-like. The remotely-controlled robots have teams behind them, and the team with the best technology tends to win, but the human element adds enough unpredictability and skill to keep things interesting, as well as ‘characters’ with stories, which sport thrives on. It’s especially Formula 1-like in that the price is prohibitive to anyone wanting to enter the sport.
Unlike Formula 1, the cathartic violence of big machines hitting each-other is loved beyond the middle classes. Grubby and wild under-circuits thrive, where the robots are smaller, older and cruder and rules, manners and patrons’ teeth are fewer.
Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), a former boxer in the now-defunct human leagues (they didn’t want him, baby) makes his living buying old robots and showing them off at county fairs and the like, performing feats of spectacle such as having them fight bulls, animal cruelty laws not apparently not being a thing any more in 2020. He has one of those Hollywood flaws that’s only really a flaw some of the time, in his case not knowing when to back down, and this has got him into a lot of dangerous debt with characters who are unsavoury but very far from sweet.
When his ex-girlfriend dies, her sister wants custody of Charlie’s estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo – a child-actor name if ever there was one) and Charlie – without Max’s aunt’s knowledge – makes a deal with her husband wherein he essentially sells the kid’s custody to them for $100,000, on the condition that Charlie has Max for a few months over summer so he and his wife can go on a long-planned and very expensive kid-free holiday to Italy.
Max is a huge fan of robot boxing but this isn’t quite enough for them to bond over yet. Max finds out about the money and claims he co-owns the high-quality robot Charlie has spent the first $50,000 on. Thanks to Charlie’s reckless impulsiveness (and not listening to Max) this expensive robot is destroyed in its first match. This leads to Charlie and Max scavenging for parts in a junkyard where Max finds an old fighting robot, Atom, which still miraculously works. As you have probably guessed they have some degree of success with this robot and begin to bond, as otherwise this would be a very different movie. Though I for one eagerly await the second robot tragedy.
In Mediocri City the verdict and recommendation are separate entities. The verdict doesn’t come at the end; it becomes clear over the course of my analysis. The recommendation (or opposite) comes at the end. However in this, the first Mediocri City I’m going to have to show my hand early, as my analysis depends on it – Real Steel is a well-made film.
The world it creates feels fleshed out and believable, helped by the fact that – super fighting robots aside – the near future setting is subtly handled, with only an increase in the number of wind-turbines and some rather sweet looking Perspex cell-phones.
The robots themselves are, of course, ridiculous; but the film treats them with such straight-faced conviction that it pulls it off. This is no doubt aided tremendously by the fact that they actually went and built nearly every robot, giving both the cast and the audience something physical to react to.
The film’s problem, and perversely quite possibly its strength, is that nothing is outstanding – and this is a strength because it means there are no weaker areas attention is drawn to by way of contrast. This said the fights are probably its strongest point. Given that it’s boxing – two opponents in a bare ring – the fights are refreshingly simple compared to a lot cluttered or shakeycam action scenes, allowing you to follow the action and appreciate the choreography rather than being served fleeting shots of blows connecting and Optimus Prime’s taint. There’s a decent amount of variation in Atom’s opponents too – one has two heads, one has a hammer and a clamp etc – which stops the fights becoming too samey.
The performances are good enough, with Evangeline Lily particularly winsome as Charlie’s long-term mechanic/sort-of-girlfriend. Dakota Goyo isn’t annoying most of the time as Max, and that’s really about the most you can ask of a child actor. Hugh Jackman is Hugh Jackman. Where the film is perhaps weakest – though nowhere to the point of spoiling it – is in the emotional trajectory of the plot. It goes through all the motions of any Hollywood flick that ain’t-weepy-Oscar-bait that involving estranged family members. They fight, they bond, they find things in common, there’s misunderstanding and betrayal leading to a few scenes of a very similar tenor to the much overused ‘The Liar Revealed’, but thankfully this isn’t dwelt on for long. And I won’t spoil it, but they handle the ending in just about the best way they could, knowing just when to stop before the audience starts asking questions about what happens next. It is a little standard Hollywood, but to the movie’s credit it doesn’t really feel like it could satisfyingly end any other way.
Max doesn’t like burgers. “What kind of kid doesn’t like burgers?” wonders Charlie upon learning this, and it’s important he does because otherwise we would be thinking the same thing and questioning the writing. Later on the road they are arguing with each-other. It ends with Charlie thrusting a fast-food bag into Max’s hands and then storming off.
“I told you I don’t like burgers!” Max calls after him, trying to score another point.
“It’s a burrito!” growls Charlie, loud enough to hear but not stopping or turning back.
I thought this scene was sweet and well executed when I first saw it, and it is. But on reflection it’s a little too well executed. It could almost be out of a script-writing manual. It ticks all the boxes, conflict, the characters showing they’ve learnt from what came before and an emotional twist at the end. It’s scenes like this that are why today’s Hollywood is what it is, good or bad. It’s scenes like this that mean I watched Real Steel and didn’t feel like I’d wasted my time, but it’s also scenes like this that are why Real Steel never had a chance of being a great movie, it’s just too conventional.
Unless you’re an art-movie type to whom any Hollywood family-ish action movie is anathema then I’d say Real Steel is worth a watch. The world it creates, including the designs of the robots, are strong and interesting enough to carry you through the weaker elements. I don’t plan to make it customary to end Mediocri City by stealing from another superior critic, but the late Roger Ebert (who gave the film 3 out of 4 stars) really does sum up what I’m trying to say about Reel Steel best: “Real Steel is a real movie. It has characters, it matters who they are, it makes sense of its action, it has a compelling plot. […]Sometimes you go into a movie with low expectations and are pleasantly surprised.”
And that’s exactly what I was.
–Got your own opinions on Real Steel? Share them in the comments.