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Real Steel (Blu-ray Review)

27 Jan, 2012 By: John Latchem

Box Office $85.26 million
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $44.99 combo pack
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some violence, intense action and brief language.
Stars Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo, Kevin Durand, Anthony Mackie, Hope Davis, James Rebhorn, Olga Fonda, Karl Yune.

In the hands of director Shawn Levy, Real Steel plays like perfect amalgam of America’s film tastes: an unabashedly old-fashioned underdog tale with a zest for Americana and a 21st century twist.

Real Steel takes place in 2020, by which time boxing has completed its decline and people satiate their desire for bloodsport with contests featuring 10-foot tall robots pounding the hell out of each other.

The rest of the setup is a familiar mash of sports movie tropes.

Former boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman, always a winning screen presence) is trying to make ends meet with a string of clunkers on the bot-fighting circuit, but can’t catch a break. Already dealing with a pile of debts to pay off, he’s saddled with an 11-year-old son he’s never met.

The kid, Max, is played by Dakota Goyo, who appeared as young Thor in Thor and enters the proceedings here with a mop-top look not dissimilar to Anakin Skywalker. And like the future Darth Vader, Max as a taste for competition and a knack for rebuilding robots.

Scrounging a junkyard for parts, the pair encounters an older droid named Atom, and Max thinks they can clean up him and have him fight. Charlie isn’t so sure, but it’s clear the two will bond as Atom rises through the ranks to face an indestructible champion bot named Zeus.

The underlying story is so familiar they could have called it Rocky Sock’Em Robots (at one point during the commentary, Levy even admits to borrowing a key moment from Rocky 3). And the technological undertones evoke the spirit of films such as Transformers, Iron Man and Avatar, with a particular appeal to the video gamer crowd. But none of that matters when you start cheering for Atom at the end, and what emerges is a movie with real heart.

Real Steel is loosely based on Richard Matheson’s 1956 short story Steel, which previously had been the basis for a 1963 episode of “The Twilight Zone” about robot boxers.

This concept isn’t that far-fetched. There already are numerous tournaments devoted to homemade robots fighting each other, spotlighted in the early 2000s on shows such as Comedy Central’s “BattleBots” or Nickelodeon’s “Robot Wars.” But these were smaller bots armed with weapons such as pikes, buzzsaws and flame throwers. The mechanics on display in Real Steel are brawny brutes that pound each other into scrap.

Levy is known for a variety of visual effects-heavy but family friendly comedies such as Night at the Museum, and Real Steel might be his best work to date.

Heavily influencing the mood is some amazing music from Danny Elfman, who really goes against type from the quirky adventures he usually scores. Real Steel sounds a lot closer to the pulse-pounding flair of Hans Zimmer or Trevor Rabin than anything you’d associate with the frontman from Oingo Boingo. It’s one of those smile-inducing movie themes like the ones NFL Films slightly alters for their highlight reels.

Levy has a history of producing extensive home video extras for his films, and Real Steel is no exception. The centerpiece of the Blu-ray is the Second Screen mode, a ringside commentary that lets Levy delve deeper into certain scenes with a series of featurettes.

There are also several standalone making-of featurettes, including a piece about boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard’s role as a consultant for the film.

Rounding out the package are an extended opening sequence and a deleted storyline involving Max and a few traits he shares with his father.

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