Real Steel reveals that Shawn Levy may one day have the potential to evolve into a respectable journeyman like, say, Martin Campbell. Levy still doesn't show much in the way of personality, but I can appreciate his relatively quiet, rigorously straightforward approach to what could have been another huge, eardrum-puncturing rampaging-robot movie. My relief admittedly has something to do with contemporary action-movie culture, as big-budget action films have seemingly moved in two distinct directions over the last decade. On one end is the Michael Bay experience, a film that revels in hyperbole and discards any pretense of coherence or physical or emotional plausibility for the sake of theoretically immediate visceral gratification; on the other end is the film, most recognizably embodied by Christopher Nolan's recent work, that appears to be so terrified of merely being a genre exercise that it offers something strained, bloated, aggressively literal-minded, and less satisfying than if the filmmaker in question had deigned to merely tell a story. In this climate, Levy's less glorious competency at delivering a modestly pleasurable entertainment is a pleasant surprise.
The opening shots initially suggest something more; they come damn close to achieving legitimate lyricism. Charlie (Hugh Jackman), a good-looking man in his 40s who's obviously not having a very stable run of things, is driving his trailer through a series of fields at the height of that magic sunset hour. As Charlie approaches his destination we see images of a carnival clearly past its prime in his windshield as his face conveys an expression of nostalgic melancholia. These few scenes, succinct and atmospheric, conjure notions of perhaps the ideal film adaptation of Something Wicked This Way Comes that's so far never been.
But Real Steel quickly settles into a more expected groove that's formula incarnate. The film is soon revealed to primarily be a stitching together of the first and fourth Rocky entries with competitive fighting robots and a daddy-son melodrama added in for maximum audience courtship (the latter shouldn't be any surprise to those who see Steven Spielberg's name in the credits as an executive producer). Every beat in the story is practically preordained in its unoriginality, but Levy maintains an appealingly light grasp throughout: The action is crisp and exciting and the robots, which are of the rock-'em-sock-'em variety, are legitimately awesome because the world around them, set in the vaguely immediate future, has been established with a convincingly off-hand touch. The clever, occasionally vivid incidental details, such as an arena set in a dilapidated zoo or a robot whose movements can synch up with a human controller, aren't fussed over or pushed in your face.
Real Steel also has a welcome, surprisingly leisurely pace that allows the actors to register a little more than usual for this kind of film. It's gamely carried by Jackman, of course, an actor who has proven at least a half dozen times that he's capable of retaining his curt man's man dignity opposite elaborate special effects while also allowing for his character's vulnerability. (One does wish that Jackman would get another film actively worthy of him, such as the unfortunately neglected The Fountain.) Dakota Goyo and Evangeline Lilly are photogenic and a little bland as Charlie's family and agents of redemption, but they're each allowed moments—such as a hug or delayed kiss—that quietly almost humanize a film that had strong odds of being a barely watchable contraption. Real Steel is still tidy corporate filmmaking, but it shows that a studio can make money without leaving you feeling as if you've just been mugged.
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This transfer gets the deluxe treatment that you'd expect of a big global moneymaker aimed squarely at children. The image is finely detailed, with superb depth and contrast, while preserving the film's intentionally dusty, slightly hazy color scheme. The robots look terrific (Real Steel has possibly the sturdiest special effects I've seen in recent years) they manage to avoid being reduced to ostentatiously fake CGI cartoons by the sometimes unforgiving eye of the Blu-ray treatment. The humans fare well too: The skin tones are varied and specific and there's no haloing anywhere in sight. The sound is similarly impressive; particularly the 7.1 track that seemingly provides the audio equivalent of a third dimension, as the depth of the varying diegetic sounds is rendered with acute geographic clarity.
The extras are unusually informative in relaying how Real Steel was actually made. "Ringside with Shawn Levy" is a variation of the FX Channel's DVD on TV series in that the director's sometimes exhaustingly enthusiastic commentary occasionally segues into a featurette devoted to, say, the design and creation of Charlie's car. If that's too much for you (it may be too specific for anyone who isn't a movie or tech nerd), the audio commentary, which is only on the DVD, provides Levy's anecdotes without the other digressions. "Making of Metal Valley" extensively details the effort that went into the setups for a sequence that occupies maybe five minutes of the finished film's running time, which makes for a distinctly uncluttered and revealing piece about the on-site toil of the process of making movies. The "Sugar Ray Leonard: Cornerman's Champ" and "Building the Bots" featurettes are less interesting, but still provide serviceable tidbits about the design and choreography that went into creating the robots and fight sequences. "Countdown to the Fight – The Charlie Kenton Story" is the most useless piece, a highly skippable short that interviews the actors in character. Rounding out the package are deleted scenes and bloopers.
An affectionate and comprehensively detailed presentation of a surprisingly decent tent-pole movie.