Real Steel (not Reel Steel or Real Steal, as it turns out) is so close to being a good movie.  Part of me wants to give the film a pass considering how much better it is than its tired, shot-full-of-clichés structure; not only does it turn Richard Matheson’s great short story “Steel” into sanitized Disney pap, but director Shaun Levy (both Night at the Museum films, What Happens in Vegas, Date Night, please kill me) tells his story through the prism of other, better boxing movies.

Washed-up former boxer looking for redemption?  Sounds like Rocky to me.  Forges an initially-fraught-yet-ultimately-meaningful relationship with his estranged son?  I liked it better when it was called The Champ.  Against all odds, protagonist decides to train a seemingly outclassed fighter (in the world of Real Steel, this fighter is a ten-foot-tall, fully automated sparring robot)?  Million Dollar Baby without the downer ending.  Fighter eventually becomes a symbol of hope in a hopeless world?  It’s nice to see that Levy liked the underrated Cinderella Man as much as I did.

Surprisingly, Real Steel transcends these limitations about sixty percent of its runtime, and chief to its sorta-success is star Hugh Jackman.  Jackman is one of the five best movie stars working today because he always gives 110%.  Put him in a good movie—like The Fountain or The Prestige or X Men 2—and he’s dynamic.  Put him in a bad movie—like Australia or Someone Like You or X Men 3—and he’s still dynamic.  Jackman cares about his films even when no one else does, and he brings real pathos to the role of Charlie Kenton, former boxing wunderkind-turned-third-rate fight promoter.

Charlie’s journey follows every step in the “How to Make an Unbelievably Predictable Hollywood Blockbuster” playbook (gee, d’ya think he’ll reconnect with his son?  And maybe rediscover his long-dormant love for the game? And—JOY!—learn the value of self-respect, too?), but apparently no one told Jackman he could phone it in.  In Jackman’s hands, Charlie’s personal/professional growth feels perfectly modulated; he experiences these creaky-but-well loved beats as if for the first time.

Levy deserves a lot of credit as well.  From a directorial standpoint, Real Steel is his best film.  Gone are the sitcom-bright camera setups and staging from the Night at the Museum flicks; along with Academy Award-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Avatar), Levy creates a believable near-future, with lots of shadows and deep-focus textures to convey Charlie’s fringe lifestyle.

Levy and Fiore also frame the film’s fight scenes in wide, steady camera takes, which highlight the dynamic fight choreography from boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard, but the director also keeps many of the filler moments interesting.  Though his actors are playing stereotypes (Evangeline Lilly as the spunky love interest, Hope Davis as the rich snob, Kevin Durand as a s**t-kicking psychopath, Anthony Mackie as a bon vivant bookie), Levy gets pleasantly muted work from them.  His instincts are still a little too base to be the next Spielberg—I doubt Spielberg ever would have included product placement as egregious as the third-act slow panning shot from one ESPN logo to….another ESPN logo—but it’s a good start.

Still, I wish I could see it as anything other than a near-success.  I suspect a rushed production start because it feels one or two rewrites away from greatness.  As much as I like the hints that non-sentient sparring ‘bot “Atom” is becoming self-aware (one scene has Atom watching himself in the mirror, which implies that he’s much more than an automated droid), the film brings up these beats only to abandon them.

However, the “Is Atom real” sections take up three minutes, tops.  Dakota Goyo’s performance as Charlie’s son Max takes up two hours and feels like a lifetime.  This is how you don’t direct a child actor: mugging facial reactions, incredulous line readings.  Jackson weathers the storm in their scenes together, but when Goyo gets a moment alone, the movie becomes Disney Channel-level pandering at best.  Worst of all is Levy and Gatins’ decision to have Goyo hip-hop dancing alongside Atom to boost fan support.  Watching this eleven-year-old shuck and jive with forced enthusiasm recalls—in the worst way—those reality TV shows about pageant kids.  Goyo deserves most of the blame form Real Steel‘s shortcomings.  Would it have been that difficult to rework the part for a girl and hire Elle Fanning?

Disney’s Blu-ray/DVD combo pack looks phenomenal, with Fiore’s HD camerawork maintaining a lush, film-like quality and the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track offering robust support to the many action scenes.  It’s the special features that rankle, and for an irritating reason.  Most of the Blu-ray’s supplements are entertaining, if inessential:

  • The mockumentary Countdown to the Fight — The Charlie Kenton Story
  • Three behind-the-scenes featurettes, one on the “Metal Valley” sequence, one on the robot design, and one on Sugar Ray’s film participation
  • Deleted/extended scenes
  • Bloopers

No real problems there.  Then, we come to the Real Steel Second Screen: Ringside with Director Shawn Levy, and I start fuming.  Here’s the thing: it seems like a good feature, a combination of Levy commentary and behind-the-scenes video vignettes, but I couldn’t tell you for sure because the disc wouldn’t let me watch it.  Designed for an iPad or laptop or smartphone, the Blu-ray says this feature will play on your TV (if, say, you can’t afford an iPad or laptop or smartphone), but it glitched and stuttered through the twenty minutes I watched.  Why Disney put viewing restrictions on what appears to be their most in-depth and interesting Real Steel supplement is beyond me, and the choice hurts the disc.

With a hair more polishing and a different child actor (or none at all), Real Steel could’ve been a perfect example of blockbuster filmmaking.  Instead, it’s an “almost there.”  The Blu-ray looks and sound great, but the technical guidelines behind the Ringside with Director Shawn Levy are misguided at best.

Real Steel streets on January 24th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s page listing.

Culture Movie Review: REAL STEEL Doesn't Quite Score the Knockout Punch