Rating: 4 of 5
The thing I like about Real Steel is, it’s not a movie you need to make allowances for.
With most action movies, you make allowances for the story or the performances or the characters because the action is awesome or the music is cool or something. But with Real Steel the characters are solid and the writing is really good in an honest sort of way and the performances carry the emotion of the film kind of spectacularly.
The highlight of the film really is the directing, though. Shawn Levy crafts an action movie with heart. The robots are masterful and the music is good, but Levy’s strength is really that he knows how to stoke the emotion of the audience, knows right where to cut away to give the thrills resonance that goes deeper and is felt more powerfully than just the inspiration of the moment.
Because, at the heart of it, Real Steel is a movie about a man rediscovering himself. It was hard for me to connect to in the beginning because I knew Charlie Kenton was going to lose and lose again. Watching the trailer will tell you that much. He’s a complete asshole and as much as I didn’t like him, I kind of respected that he didn’t pretend to be anything more noble. Hugh Jackman sells that he’s an unrepentant asshole, that he’s completely selfish and more than a little cocky.
Dakota Goyo holds his own against Jackman impressively, playing a character as stubborn and unrepentant and honest as his father. The difference is, Max Kenton hasn’t been disillusioned. He’s smart and still believes in himself and even in his father. Max doesn’t expect Charlie to be a better man, just to stop hiding from the man he’s capable of being.
Are you kidding me with those eyes!? dammit.
Evangeline Lily is the utility player, giving dimension to Charlie in stories that show us who he really is, loving Max before Charlie figures out how lovable he is, supporting the boys in their story effectively. And in the end, she owns the final scene. Because Charlie and Max are in the middle of the fight, we root for them and understand what they’re experiencing. But it’s different with Bailey, who’s also just watching the fight. She’s the audience’s vantage point and everything we feel is more powerful because it’s reflected in her reaction to the fight. You see the fighter in her, who her father taught her to be and what she understands about the sport and even more what she understands about Charlie all come to life in that moment – making the pride and gratification and enthusiasm substantial. The Kenton boys are inspirational. She makes it outstanding.
And I don’t really like Evangeline Lily that much so I was a little impressed. Also, I give some of the credit to Levy because I think good directors make actors better.
The romance between Bailey and Charlie was subtle, but I actually think it was enough.
I love that Levy knows the power of story enough to have Bailey tell a story about who Charlie Kenton is. Instead of trying to tell it in flashback or as a prologue, her telling Max about it gives us not only the facts, but the meaning of what happened, the perspective to lend significance to it. It was a great scene that resonated through the rest of the film.
A little bit, I love this movie even more because action movies with a strong emotional core are my favorite. You get the excitement and the fun, the big moments and the fast music. But it means something; how it ends matters because there’s an emotional journey as much as there is a plot. The only thing missing was Max dancing in the end. I was just waiting for it…