The Cynical Optimist bends Real Steel

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The Sweet Science meets Science-Fiction…

“Trash doesn’t belong to the academic tradition, and that’s part of the fun of trash—that you know (or should know) that you don’t have to take it seriously, that it was never meant to be anymore than frivolous and trifling and entertaining.” — Pauline Kael, “Trash, Art, and the Movies.”

Richard Matheson’s short story Steel first appeared in the May 1956 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The story, which was later adapted as an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” serves as the inspiration for director Shawn Levy’s new film, “Real Steel.”

“Real Steel” is set in the not-to-distant future where robot boxing is a top sport. No longer satiated by the rules and limitations of human boxing, audiences crave the no-holds-barred mechanized mayhem that the World Robot Boxing League offers.

Hugh Jackman stars as Charlie Kenton, a washed-up fighter from the olden days who has become a small-time promoter for robot fights. Kenton pieces together low-end bots from scrap metal to get from one underground boxing venue to the next. When he hits rock bottom, he reluctantly teams up with his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) to build and train a championship contender.

“Real Steel” is an amalgam of “Over the Top” and “Rocky,” with spare parts from “Bloodsport,” “The Wizard” and a half-dozen other ’80s movies. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing 1987′s “Over the Top,” allow me to give you the synopsis:

“Lincoln Hawk (Stallone) is a struggling trucker who’s trying to rebuild his life. After the death of his wife, he tries to make amends with his son who he left behind years earlier. Upon their first meeting, his son doesn’t think too highly of him until he enters the nation-wide arm wrestling competition in Las Vegas.” — IMDB

Sure, “Over the Top” is trash – but it’s a damn good time. Who can forget Sylvester Stallone tossing Terry Funk through a plate glass window — or just the general fact that Lincoln Hawk is competing in an arm wrestling tournament for the custody of his estranged son?

But anyway, back to my point. In “Real Steel,” Max’s mother dies and he’s dumped on the doorstep of Keaton, who is your typical deadbeat dad eager to sign over custody to get back to his boozin’ and brawlin’ ways — but they eventually end up on the road together, and instead of touring bars for arm wrestling matches, they’re playing Rock’em Sock’em Robots in nightclubs and junkyards — pretty fucking awesome, right?

“Real Steel” won’t be winning any BAFTA awards — it’s pure cinematic junk food, the respectable kind of popcorn trash that helps us enjoy the highbrow pleasures of lowbrow art — and that’s all it intends to be. There’s just enough characterization to keep you interested in-between the action — and Hugh Jackman is completely invested and sells his character — a considerable upgrade as Jackman’s chops gives “Real Steel” the kind of credibility “Over the Top” never had.

Dakota Goyo is reminiscent of Jake Lloyd in “The Phantom Menace” — if Anakin wasn’t a whiny bitch who only opened his mouth to scream “Whoops” and “Yippee!” You actually like the kid, and his relationship with Jackman is tangible and believable. Overall, I found the film to be flimsy, yet highly entertaining. If anything it’s well-made, which is more than I can say for most of this year’s exercises in popcorn garbage.

If you’re still a kid at heart, you’ll probably love it – if you have kids, they’ll think it’s a goddamn masterpiece — the same way I felt when I saw “Bloodsport” and “Over the Top” for the first time. So, with that being said, here’s the part in my review where I go all-out for the DVD box quote:

The “Citizen Kane” of fighting robot movies! A real knock-out! “Real Steel” is the Reel Deal!