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Real Steel

DreamWorks Pictures (October 27 2011), Touchstone Home Entertainment (January 24 2012), 1 Blu-ray and 1 DVD combo, 127 mins plus supplements, 1080p high-definition 2.35:1 widescreen, DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio, Rated PG-13 for some violence, intense action and brief language, Retail: $39.99

Storyboard:

In a near-future where androids have taken over from human opponents in the ring, a washed up boxer finds new hope in his career and as a father when his estranged son encourages him to fight in the robot wars…

The Sweatbox Review:

It seems Steven Spielberg, and by extension his Amblin and DreamWorks production arms, has been on a bit of a 1980s kick of late. Already the superb collaboration with JJ Abrams, Super 8, has impressed, and his Studio was recently behind a misguided but no doubt well intentioned remake of Fright Night. There’s certainly a similar vibe going on in Real Steel, the kind of film that, had it been made in that decade, might be a fun memory now in the fond way the cheesiness of the likes of Robot Jox are remembered (or not!).

Unlike the cut-price production of that kind of picture, however, Real Steel has a heck of a production crew (the names – Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis among them – keep coming in the credits), meaning that this is a top of the line movie, but no less cheesy fun for it. Like Super 8, Real Steel reminded me big time of the kind of movies Amblin churned out during the decade; it’s a silly romp that, while easily 20 minutes too long overall, is the kind of enjoyable action nonsense that kids should be able to enjoy with the whole family.

Directed by Shawn (Night At The Museum) Levy and based in part on a short story by none other than Richard Matheson, Real Steel finds Hugh Jackman playing a washed up ex-boxer (we know he’s washed up since he stumbles from a bed surrounded by beer bottles – or, well, at least a couple of beer bottles – and owes people money), whose self-assembled robot makes him small time money in the country’s latest sporting craze, a concept (“Roboxing”?) that may remind some of the gladiatorial Mecha fights of A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

Jackman’s not having the best of times: reduced to having his last robot trashed in an out of town sideshow scrap (against a bull, of all things), he also finds an old girlfriend, recently deceased, has left him a son whose life he never really wanted to be a part of. Naturally, over the course of the summer, the father introduces his son to his world, the two bond…and you can pretty much guess what happens next! It has to be said, however, that Real Steel isn’t quite so cut and dried, and a semi-downbeat ending, while brave, also robs us of a satisfying conclusion.

Another strange aspect to the film is that, all the relationship squabbles aside, the overall plot of Real Steel doesn’t really give Jackman a whole heap of stuff to do. Often his ostensible lead character is reduced to the sidelines, coaching the machines that headline the fights, so it’s a good thing that, since these battling bots take up so much of the screentime, they are themselves absolutely first rate contenders, building on the design and integration effects of the likes of TransFormers and I, Robot to offer up some exceptionally well realized animation effects.

A combination of Animatronics and Digital Domain’s visual effects, the robots of Real Steel really make the movie, although from a story point of view, it might have been more fitting had Jackman somehow invented his own robot as opposed to either buying in a previous model, Noisy Boy, or simply retro-equipping the Atom model he and his son find at a junk yard. Thankfully, although there’s an allusion to hidden life inside, the movie doesn’t really head off in this direction, and the robots remain just that, even if there is a slight hint of The Iron Giant’s ghost in the machine.

It’s probably in the early sections that time might have been saved: the entire Noisy Boy plot might have been dropped in favor of a brisker pace, but then again this isn’t the kind of film intended to be taken that seriously. In a movie filled with silliness (and such corking dialogue as: “You’ve been working with those robots for so long you’ve become one”), the way the machines are controlled – either via a smart pad device (a sneaky DreamWorks nod to their HP partners) or via voice recognition – doesn’t seem to have been thought out to have been all that believable, although I am making that comment with a straight face in regards to a movie about giant-sized robot boxers.

Making up for this is Dakota Goyo as the kid, who really inhabits his character and provides the movie with its heart. He’s certainly going to be a young face to watch out for, and really makes a big impression here, easily stealing the show (and even the acting honors) from Jackman and an ultimately vastly underused Evangeline (Lost) Lily. Goyo often grounds the film with a genuine young person’s awe, both bouncing off his Dad and helping to give the Atom robot life, while some of his vocal-free facial retorts are priceless.

Likewise, and despite Real Steel’s blatant ridiculousness, I defy anyone not to find themselves fully involved in the final big fight against – who else? – an unscrupulous, mega-bucks-backed corporate sponsored leviathan Zeus. The outcome, naturally never under any real doubt, only makes the final judges’ decision all the more stranger, and clearly the reason the film didn’t find greater success, leaving a slight sour taste despite the positive – if way too open ended – fade out (I couldn’t help but think the constant ESPN logos here were also a DreamWorks nod to their new Disney distribution partners).

But, as the final bell rings, I would ultimately suggest that Real Steel is a huge amount of fun for the family. If the intention was to begin a franchise then the film only has its own ending to blame for the lack of success that could have led to word of mouth success, but the film doesn’t deserve the box-office knock-out it endured at the tail end of last year. Yes, it’s at least one or two fights overlong and, yes, it’s essentially a blockbuster version of a kind of cheesy 80s movie they don’t make anymore, but there are some fine dollops of top-drawer visual effects filmmaking to be found and enjoyed here: for a family movie night, Real Steel is a real solid bet.

Is This Thing Loaded?

Presented in both a Blu-ray and DVD plus Digital Copy combo, and a lower-cost Blu-ray and DVD only combo, it’s nice to see Real Steel given a champion’s treatment when it comes to its bonus features in either edition. On the Blu-ray Disc, the big push is for the latest addition to Disney’s Second Screen feature, whereby the viewer syncs up a computer, laptop or iPad style device with the movie to watch the kind of interactive content that manufacturers and distributors promised us would be one of the reasons to upgrade to Blu-ray in the first place, snark, snark.

When it comes to the Second Screen concept, the two things that have always bugged me are: what if you simply don’t have a second screen to hand, and what happens to that online content when Disney decides to eventually, and inevitably, remove it, like say if their DreamWorks distribution deal runs out? Well, thankfully, it seems the creators of the Real Steel disc have thought of these problems, since as well as the usual syncing up to a second device, which has its own inherent online issues, there is a very welcome option to run the feature right from the disc!

While it seems syncing up to a second screen does offer a few more things to check out, the disc-based Second Screen also seems to play some content that’s not on the online app. Somewhat taking the form of Disney’s picture-in-picture Cine-Explore format, we’re taken “ringside with Shawn Levy” to be treated to a visual commentary from the director, who makes repeated references to the additional online material, with a variety of pop-up video nuggets inserted in that may remind you of some of Disney’s previous such discs (Prince Of Persia, G-Force) or Warner Video’s Immersive Movie Mode on some of their discs.

Basically combining a regular Audio Commentary with additional on-screen highlights, the Real Steel Second Screen is a great alternate viewing mode, providing a really great deal of behind the scenes material covering almost every scene and I should imagine it easily expands the movie’s length by half as much again. I couldn’t verify that for this review, but being totally honest I can’t wait to find the time to sit down and watch the full presentation at some point soon. As much as I found the movie to be just lightweight fun, it was obviously made with serious intent, and Levy’s comments are always hugely engrossing and always interesting.

Levy seems a hyper personality on set, but in the commentary sections he’s in more of a reflective mood, delving into all areas of the production, speaking almost non-stop about his experiences on the film. In the video sections, he becomes much more lively again – maybe he’s just a little nervous at being on camera? – but it doesn’t stop this from being one of the best such tracks of recent discs, and it’s cool to hear how the aim was to reflect the kinds of films a certain generation grew up on and how such films as The Iron Giant did play an influencing role.

A pair of Deleted and Extended Scenes don’t reveal anything as potentially satisfying as a more triumphant alternate ending, and to be honest at 127 minutes I did think the film might have benefited from removing a few more moments. Given that feeling, I can’t suggest either of the scenes – a slightly extended Ambush introduction and a lengthy “Butterfly Storyline” subplot for the kid – in this 17-minute compilation (including Levy’s brief comments) would have done anything other than stretch out Real Steel further, but they’re obviously welcome in having the chance to see.

I don’t usually appreciate fake documentaries that dress up a movie’s characters as real people, but Countdown To The Fight: The Charlie Kenton Story, a 14-minute “ESPN profile” of Jackman’s character is very well done, not relying on Real Steel movie footage and instead containing a dedicated amount of mocked-up “early” fighting footage, magazine covers and interviews that really paints a picture of Charlie’s life leading up to the events of the film. I’m not at all sure what the point of this elaborate featurette is, but it’s very authentic in detail, length and feel, and I assume it played as part of the promotion for the movie.

Instead of doing the same kind of thing for a real sporting legend, Sugar Ray Leonard: Cornerman’s Champ (6:19) looks at the film’s boxing consultant’s contributions to the realistic fighting styles displayed by the robots, as well as the way he and Jackman bonded in preparing the moves he would perform. It’s yet another layer that shows Real Steel’s extensive preparation, and it’s nice to see the level of authenticity the cast and crew wanted to achieve as well as the way Jackman – whose own Dad was a boxer – relates to Sugar Ray in the ring.

The rest of the Blu-ray supplements can also be found on the bundled-in DVD, with the 14-minute Making Metal Valley exploring the amazing design, production and shooting of the specific sequence where Jackman and Goyo’s characters discover the Atom robot in the junkyard. The sheer amount of work for such a small – but important – section is extremely impressive, and this is a very well assembled diary of the shoot, though again Levy is super-hyper enthusiastic on camera, even if he ultimately comes off as a good guy and the enthusiasm seems rightly placed.

Building The Bots (5:38) takes us to San Francisco’s Legacy Effects house to see how the previously named Stan Winston Studio created the robots of Real Steel. I’m not sure how changing the name of a studio is really supposed to show a reverence for a man’s legacy, but names aside it does seem the team there are committed to continuing Winston’s great work. They’ve certainly achieved that here, designing and creating the real world models that perform alongside the augmented digital effects and continue the traditions set by the Jurassic Park films in these regards.

As someone points out, these bots are original creations, not based on any previous character or toy, which only makes me lament the film’s lack of great success more since it seems clear that had Real Steel been bigger at the box-office it may well have led to these characters – who reminded me a little of the previous DreamWorks film Small Soldiers – becoming household names themselves. A two and a half minute Bloopers reel goes against the grain to actually be funny, clearly showing Jackman to be the fun guy he’s rumoured to be and the good time had by all on what seems to be an obviously happy set.

The feature Audio Commentary with director Levy is also repeated on the DVD which, again even if one might find the overall film to be a little lightweight, there’s no doubting the serious aims, giving a new insight into the processes behind getting Real Steel on screen. Sneak Peeks for other Disney/DreamWorks product include trailers for Marvel’s The Avengers, and War Horse and The Help. Overall, especially given the wealth of content in the visual commentary, this a very nice package of supplements for a very well-intentioned movie!

Case Study:

I’m somewhat surprised that Disney’s typical Blu-rimmed slipcase has found itself being applied to the DreamWorks titles the company is now contracted to distribute, but in Real Steel’s case it seems to suit nicely. Adapting the original theatrical poster art for the front of the sleeve, one can see how the marketeers must have struggled to sell this one, settling for an image of Jackman amongst what have to be said to be TransFormer-like bots. Inside there’s a promo booklet for other Touchstone BDs and a couple of Real Steel tie-ins.

Ink And Paint:

Released less than three months ago and sporting state of the art visual effects, Real Steel is about as fantastic a hi-def Blu-ray experience as it gets.

The movie wasn’t converted to 3D for theatrical release, but it doesn’t need it: this transfer is effortlessly layered and dimensional and shows off the tremendous production design and effects to the full. I’ve no idea how much the picture cost to produce, but it doesn’t look cheap, and all of that money appears to be on the screen, this top-notch transfer showing it all off perfectly.

Scratch Tracks:

Matching the solid image is a stunning DTS-MA sound mix featuring an absolutely outstanding surround track that is all kinds of awesomeness and puts you right in the ring. Adding to the aural experience, and marking a departure from his usual orchestral approach, is Danny Elfman, who provides a guitar-led score that may not be exactly what one might expect for a film of this kind, with some quite delicate acoustic sections complimenting the more typical electro-rock action cues. English, French and Spanish subs (including for Levy’s commentary) and dubs are covered in pounding DTS and Dolby tracks across the two discs.

Final Cut:

Big dumb fun, but big dumb fun with a heart, I found Real Steel to be a top quality kids action film in an age where so much that gets released to the family genre is just pure crap. It reminded me of a modern version of the kinds of films I used to enjoy during my own childhood – it feels like a script that could have been knocking around waiting to be made since the 1980s – and although it has a basic simplicity and a gawp factor that has probably has its thunder stolen by other, cruder robot films of late, Real Steel still packs its own punch.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?


MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD


 

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