Doing laps in the LA Fishbowl

The Real Steal Was My $12 Ticket

All right, I know right off that I’m in the minority here. I mean, the kids I were with loved it. The audience actually cheered and booed in the appropriate places. And when I saunter over to “Rotten Tomatoes,” I see a slim majority of bone fide critics actually liked this movie. That said— YE GODS! I haven’t seen a more manipulative, coldly-calculated movie than “Real Steel” in a long time. And by that I mean, I didn’t see the last two Transformers movies.

The movie was created on a white board. “Transformers” + “The Champ”÷ “Rocky”! Down-on-his-luck ne’er do well ex-boxer (Hugh Jackman) becomes reacquainted with his abandoned son, learns how to be a better mech-handler, and, yes, a better father. Plus robots punching each other out! What’s not to like? It hits all demographics, except perhaps those with a working memory of any father-son movie in the last twenty years.

Like the fighting robot the little boy salvages, everything in this movie is made up of old, used parts. The robot looks like “The Iron Giant.” The bad guys, the better to inspire jingoistic hoots and hollers, are from Russian AND Japan. (Hisss! Boo!) They’ve even got a little boy (Dakota Goyo) who’s genetically designed to engender maximum weeping. I didn’t believe he was Jackman’s son for a second, but that’s not why he was cast. Tow-headed, limpid-eyed, snub-nosed, he’s the amalgamation of Ricky Schroder (a boy trying to bond with his father like in “The Champ”—who cries!) and Justin Henry (a boy without his mother like in “Kramer vs Kramer”— who cries!) with the hair and dance moves of Justin Bieber. It was very odd— all the boy’s lines seemed like they belonged to someone older and tougher. Maybe Hilary Swank. Perhaps a previous incarnation of the script involved an older man and a scrappy, feisty gal with a robot. But that would have been too original.

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I don’t know why I was expecting more. I was beguiled by reviews and PR into thinking it was going to be a better movie than it was. Or maybe it was the promise of Hugh Jackman’s torso that did me in. Yes, Wolverine’s pectorals deserve a special effects award all to themselves—but even those mighty man-pillows can’t sustain an entire movie (well, maybe if the movie involved them flexing in a hot tub one crazy night with Ryan Gosling … but that’s an entirely different kind of entertainment altogether. Jackman actually flashes them only once, in a totally gratuitous scene early on, stripping off his shirt as if to say, “All right, you wankers in the audience who have only come for my muscles, here they are. Shut up and dream about these for the rest of the movie.”)

Yes, I am contractually obligated
 to flash these…

Before one of the big robot smash-ups, Jackman tells his son, “This ain’t no video game, this is for real!” Sorry, Hugh, but I beg to differ. Aside from being one long commercial for Dr. Pepper, Sprint (the Now Network!) and especially Hewlett-Packard, the movie plays like the best preview ever of a video game coming soon to a console near you.

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October 23rd, 2011 - Still Life Las Vegas

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