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Real Steel

Year: 2011
Studio: Touchstone
Director: Shawn Levy
Producer: Shawn Levy
Writer: John Gatins, Jeremy Leven, Dan Gilroy
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo, Hope Davis, James Rebhorn, Kevin Durand

The words 'directed by Shawn Levy' should be enough to frighten anyone away. Normally I'm very mindful of the filmmakers that actors choose to work with, and it always amazes me how they seem not to realise that working with the likes of Michael Bay, Craig Mazin or George Lucas will seriously damage their credibility.

All I can attribute it to is actors who don't know anything about the film scene (seemingly a misnomer, but I'll bet they're out there) or who listen blindly to their agents waving numbers with lots of zeroes or the word 'exposure' at them. Every now and then it pays off, and whether Hugh Jackman was lucky or knew something the rest of us didn't, it has here. Real Steel is the unlikeliest great film of the year.

Most people will go expecting a mini Transformers, and there are plenty of scenes of satisfying machine violence to please them. But the story behind it is sneakily affecting, particularly because it's the hackneyed character arc from a million other dramas.

Maybe it's Jackman as Charlie – who teeters on the edge of overzealous at times but putd everything into it. Maybe it's Dakota Goyo as his son Max, who commands a good performance for his age. Or maybe it's Evangeline Lilly as grease monkey Bailey, Charlie's love interest and far more human than the airbrushed babe we're used to in keep-the-home-fires-burning female characters.

It's the near future after boxing has been outlawed among humans, and the sport now pits robots against each other, controlled by human handlers. Charlie is one who's down on his luck – washed up, bordering on broke and desperate to get back in the game. When an ex dies and the son he never knew is left on Charlie's doorstep he wants none of it, intending to keep the kid for six months to ensure a payday courtesy of an adoption scam hatched with the kid's adoptive Dad.

The expected happens as Max melts Charlie's heart, and it's given a metaphor in an abandoned robot they find in a junk yard which Max is determined to train into a legitimate fighter. As he does Charlie comes to love him and feels his humanity returning.

All the while this is going on, we see some of the coolest boxing scraps in ages as animatronic and CGI robots beat seven shades out of each other. The bare bones of the film is like Rocky all over again and will have you cheering for the underdog like you did in 1976.

But when it comes time for the machine mash, Real Steel delivers as you hope it will. What makes it such a pleasure is that you're not bored waiting for the next fight scene.

For a workaday point-and-shoot-at-effects director Levy makes some interesting and at times lovely aesthetic choices here and there which lift it above the simple approach of blocking a shot and shooting it as it appears.

Worth pointing out in particular (ironically, given the subject) is how realistic the world of ten or 20 years hence is drawn. Unlike the sci fi we all imagined from the dawn of the genre until the 1970s where everything was gleaming, shiny and automated, this is a world where people still drive clanky trucks and live in crummy places.

If you look closely you can see the only things that are really advanced are some of the trappings of life – a radio here, a mobile phone there – just like our world would seem to someone visiting from the 80s. Levy intended it, saying "The whole reason it's 2020 [and not further in the future] is because I knew this movie was going to be an underdog story and I didn't want the distant futurism of extreme sci-fi. I wanted the world to feel really familiar, so that the characters would feel really relatable. The cell-phone we used five or ten years ago looks different from today, but a diner still looks like a diner." he accomplishes it beautifully.

The product placement was as exhaustive as ever but (and maybe it was just because I liked the film) it seemed to enmesh well with the story instead of standing out like ads. But if there's one thing the movie got badly wrong, it's this: not robot boxers, Microsoft Bing sponsoring a stadium in 2020? That shit'll be dead by next year.

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