In this image released by Disney/DreamWorks II, Hugh Jackman, left, and Dakota Goyo are shown in a scene from "Real Steel" (AP Photo/Disney/DreamWorks II)
2 stars out of 4It should be made very clear up front that most of the audience at the preview screening for "Real Steel" (30something parents and their under-10 children) absolutely loved it. They cheered, laughed, roared with approval and a few of them even cried. Studios pray for this kind of reaction, which will surely result in tremendous word of mouth and high ticket sales; at least for one weekend.
While this is certainly good news for DreamWorks, it is the kiss of death for the movie's target demographic: 18- to 25-year-old fanboys. Fanboys (mostly men but also applicable to women) are really into sci-fi and fantasy flicks that hopefully include a little sex and not too much violence. You know those people who wait in line for days or even weeks to see "Star Wars," "Star Trek" or "The Lord of the Rings" flicks? Those are fanboys.
In its original incarnation (the 1966 short story "Steel" by Richard Matheson) and the first adaptation (a 1963 episode of "The Twilight Zone"), the story was a downbeat bit of futuristic dystopia where professional boxing between humans was replaced with robot competitors. In an effort to make the story sellable to the masses, director/co-writer Shawn Levy (the "Night at the Museum" franchise) jettisoned the sour moodiness and replaced it with literally everything else under the sun.
One theory as to why the preview audience loved it so much was because they weren't aware of Levy's flagrant pilfering. He steals from dozens of other sources including but not limited to: "Mad Max," "Fight Club," "Raging Bull," the "Terminator" franchise, "8 Seconds," "The Iron Giant," a '70s Coke commercial (featuring athlete "Mean" Joe Green), the "Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots" board game, the gay skeleton sidekick on "The Late Late Show," a tad of "Transformers" and the first "Rocky." There is not a single speck of original thought in the entire movie.
With the exception of "Transformers," these sources are either too arcane or too "dangerous" for most family audiences so they won't realize the connection nor will they care but for fanboys and those who prefer their action flicks to have teeth, it matters a lot.
In essence, "Real Steel" is a lovable shaggy dog story with father Charlie (Hugh Jackman), son Max (Dakota Goyo) and their junk yard robot, Atom, all playing the dog at some point. Charlie's a washed-up ex-boxer, Max is the son of Charlie's dead ex-girlfriend and Atom is ... Rocky. They make a great team even though you can figure out what's going to happen to them in the end before they even come together as a trio.
When not stealing from other mediums, the filmmakers want to make sure you're real clear on who is good and who is bad. Charlie, Max and Atom are good -- that's a given. The bad guys are a redneck, a black robot named Zeus, an Asian techno-geek and a hot Russian babe (Olga Fonda -- the fanboys will love her). They'll also like seeing the girl from "Lost" (Evangeline Lilly) because "Lost" was kinda, sorta a fanboy show. Lilly and Fonda both look great and wear as little as possible the entire time.
The only complaint heard while the audience was filing out of the screening was "the language" -- a valid point. There were no "F" bombs dropped, but there is plenty of other salty language used that will give parents ample opportunity to wince and cover their young one's ears. The movie is appropriately rated PG-13.
Levy and DreamWorks' biggest sin wasn't the watering down of the original story beyond recognition or "borrowing" other people's ideas, it was in the beyond-obvious product placement. Rarely has any movie ever gone this far and been this blatant in getting companies to cover production costs by flashing their logos. Charlie gets tanked on Budweiser while Max gets jolted up on too much Tab (or maybe it was Dr. Pepper) and in this future world (about 2019) everybody's cellphone provider is Sprint.
If you're not a 30something parent, their child or a fanboy, "Real Steel" will leave you feeling neutral. It's harmless and mildly uplifting but it is also derivative and shameless. Like the first "Rocky," it also avoids a totally pat and convenient ending which can mean only one thing: "Real Steel 2." (DreamWorks)