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The Polar Express

Real Steel

What She said:

She

Let me just start by answering your initial question, no, this is not Rock ‘em Sock ‘em robots.  It sort of feels like it at times, but Real Steel is actually a family movie about a man and his son who are drawn together by robot boxing.  I know, it sounds really weird.  Bear in mind that this is the not-too-distant future.  People dress the same and the cars are only slightly cooler, but we’ve managed to engineer these giant robots that we control remotely and use to beat the snot out of other robots for our entertainment.

I guess it all makes sense.  We already have those robot fighting leagues.  These bots are just bigger and badder.  I sort of wondered during this movie if these robots were being used for any other application—like perhaps something a little more heartwarming, in hospitals perhaps?  But that’s just beside the point.

Let me give you the basic premise.  Hugh Jackman plays Charlie, a super deadbeat dad who was totally ignoring his son, Max, until Max’s mother died and he was forced to face reality.  Charlie, being the no good SOB that he is, sets up an agreement with Max’s uncle to retain custody for the summer if he gets money in return and then is able to forfeit any right to the kid.  It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement, you’ll see why.  So yeah, Charlie is stuck with this kid he hardly knows and has to take him on the road with him as he goes to fight robots for money.  It’s a semi-underground practice, and Charlie, who was apparently once a pretty decent old school boxer, is not so good with the bots.  He loses, and loses big, so he’s in for a lot of money with several people.  Max actually ends up helping Charlie, getting him to start winning and showing him the value of having a son.

At a purely superficial level, I liked this movie.  There’s lots of fighting and some funny dialogue between Charlie and Max.  However, on a deeper level….well, let’s face it, there is no deeper level.  You can use your imagination to develop the relationship between Charlie and Max, but as it’s presented in the movie, I wonder if Charlie would just as sooner go back to being a loner.  It’s implied that he learns to love his son, but there’s no stellar proof of that.  The character development is just not as rich as I would have hoped.  It would not have taken much to really key this movie up to the next level, just a little more father/son bonding. 

One good thing I have to say, the special effects are amazing.  I was beyond impressed.  Yes, this movie is flashy and loud, but it’s also enjoyable, for the most part.  Unless you’re a total chick who has zero interest in boxing.  Then you probably won’t like this movie at all.

Thumbs mostly up.

What he said:

He

When I was a kid there was this movie called Robot Jox. It was about a futuristic society that had been ravaged by a third World War. In place of war, feuding countries settled their differences by having giant robots fight – driven by human counterparts – beat the hell out of one another. The winner got to claim disputed land or resources, I forget. Yes, it was a stupid as it sounds, but to a 10-year old boy, it doesn’t get any better than King Kong-sized robots smashing each other to bits.

So when I the marketing for Real Steel started to surface, I said to myself, “Are they serious with this?!” Don’t get me wrong, I like plenty of crappy movies. But there was just something about a movie version of Rock’em So ck’em Robots that sounds stupid even to this lover of corny flicks.

Like Robot Jox, Real Steel also takes place a future where humans get to watch robots beat the hell out of each other. Though in this movie, the motives are a little more simplistic. You see, in the future human beings become dissatisfied with more traditional combat sports (boxing and mixed martial arts). So somewhere along the line someone comes up with the idea of sport that allows fans to see total destruction without putting any lives at risk.  

This is where Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) comes into the mix. He’s a former fighter and having no other marketable skills is forced to adapt and become one of these robot fighters. Something you should know about Charlie is that he’s kind of a loser. He takes these carnival style fights that usually involved some kind of gimmick and finds himself on the losing end of things a little too often. Having recently lost his current robot, he gets even better news when he finds out the mother of his son – whom he has no relationship with – has recently passed away. Initially, Charlie plans on signing over custody of the boy to his aunt (his mother’s sister). But being the schemer that he is, Charlie tries to extort money from them and offers to essentially sell the kid to them. Max’s (Charlie’s kid) uncle isn’t crazy about the idea, but also being something of a selfish prick, he agrees to the idea. You see Max’s aunt and uncle had a summer long vacation planned in Italy and his uncle really wants to go, but doesn’t feel like dragging the kid along. So they come up with some scheme that involves Charlie watching Max for the summer and then bringing him to their home at the end of the summer.  Charlie needs money for a new robot, Max’s uncle Marvin gets his vacation, and everybody wins. Sort of.

Max (played wonderfully by newcomer Dakota Goyo) is a bright kid. He quickly figures the whole thing out and his summer “vacation” with his father is off to a wonderful start. The kid is as smart as a fox, so when Charlie plans on dumping him on girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lily of LOST fame), he blackmails him into taking him along on his quest for a new fighting machine. Like father, like son.

One night while stealing parts from a junkyard, Max finds an older model fighting bot. It’s one of the earliest models ever created. The kid takes a liking to it and takes it against Charlie’s wishes. Charlie figures he can at least sell it for parts, but Max will have none of it. Things get even more interesting when the kid insists on entering his robot – named Atom – into some local underground fights. Charlie thinks the kid is going to get destroyed, but it turns out Atom is an old sparring bot. He never fought professionally, but was the partner for many a professional fighting robots. He has this special “shadow feature” that enables him to mimic his opponents and become the perfect training partner. He’s also built to take a beating.

Now if this sounds stupid, I can understand your reservations. I thought the same thing when I started seeing promotional posters and trailers. But I’ll be damned if this didn’t start getting some surprisingly good reviews in theaters. People were talking about this movie. Well it turns out the buzz had some truth to it. This is a fantastic little family-oriented action flick. It’s got tons of robot smashing fun, but also a really nice little story to boot.

The kid who plays Max was incredibly entertaining. He was smart, funny, and carried himself with a swagger that you simply don’t see in many young actors. This kid is the heart and soul of the movie. He couldn’t have done it alone though.

Hugh Jackman nails this role. Charlie is something of a scoundrel. Think Han Solo in his early days, but actually more unlikeable. Just like Solo, Charlie learns his lesson, yada, yada, yada and grows into a pretty decent guy. Jackman’s performance perfectly shows the growth of the character. As much as Dakota Goyo carried the movie, he needed whoever played his character’s father to pull his weight and Jackman did.

Evageline Lily isn’t in the movie a whole lot, but serves as a nice conscience for Jackman’s character. She’s a good gal who’s fallen on hard times and also the heart that Jackman’s character sometimes lacks. It was good to see one of the Losties on the big screen. And one whose so pleasant to look at (fellas, you know what I’m talking about).

Thisis a heartwarming little movie that blends elements of Rocky, The Little Engine That Could, and some robot smashing mayhem.  If that doesn’t interest you, then your inner child may be dead. Mine is alive and kicking. I think I smiled ear-to-ear the entire movie.

Oh and the special effects were fantastic. In a day and age where there is a lot of crappy animated characters out there, these things look 100% real. It looks like they are right there with their human counterparts. I think that's because, like Jurassic Park, they used a nice mix of models/puppets and animation.

Rating: Thumbs up.

This movie review was written for your reading pleasure on February 16, 2012.