Granted, it didn’t have a lot going for it at the time. That cinematic Antichrist himself, Shawn Date Night at the Museum for the Pink Panther Levy was set to direct, and while pleasant to look at, Hugh Jackman appeared to be spinning his superstar wheels in yet another grinding action effort. Then the teaser trailer arrived, and suddenly, Real Steel looked like it might actually be pretty good. The premise - a future world where robots fought to the mechanical death for the amusement of a jaded population - had promise (it was based on a short story by genre ace Richard Matheson and was actually made into a memorable episode of the old Twilight Zone) and with today’s ever polished CG, the F/X should/would blow us away. Without more of the plot, Real Steel felt like Stuart Gordon’s underappreciated Robot Jox, except with a splash of improved eye candy.
Then the latest preview hit the Web yesterday, and all genre goodwill just…died. To see what Levy had done to the idea, to see how the entire movie switched gears from a action packed punch-out to a warmed over Kazam was crushing. Who knew that this high tech tentpole for the Fall of 2011 was an interactive video game adaptation of The Champ, complete with a washed up pugilist (Jackman) looking for redemption, an equally out to pasture automaton that everyone pegs as an underdog, and a precious whiny weepy little brat (Dakota Boyo) making sure that everything that happens is a directly result of his desire to have the entire future shock world revolve around his pug nosed snottiness. Oh course, he’s also the son of a distant and disaffected Jackman.
Groan. In critical terms it’s called “kidding” - taking an otherwise sophisticated idea and dialing it down so far as to warrant the limited attention span of the under 12 movie-going zygotry. If Hollywood were an educational system, it would be like removing math from the curriculum and replacing it with remedial finger counting. Now no one really expected Real Steel to be a wholly adult entertainment with actual ideas and innovation behind it, but did it really have to turn into Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots: The Movie? All throughout the carefully animated fight sequences, you keep waiting for the machines to mangle each other to the point where one hyperactive competitor, IPad like ‘joystick’ in his or her hand, screams “You knocked my block off!”
Kidding is nothing new in Tinseltown. It’s always been there. Back when a day trip to the cinema cost a quarter and could last for a double feature, a newsreel, a couple of cartoons and a serial, studios have understood the spending power of the child. They recognize that in the fast paced, hurly burly days of adulthood, you don’t really have time to settle back and watch 90 minutes of mindless amusement. So everything gets split up and spoon fed, jokes synced up to whose socially networked at the moment (“How can we work Rebecca Black into this line?”) while themes are kept to the recognizable and superficial - believe in yourself, stand up for yourself, good always trumps evil and, when in doubt, toss in a couple of farts. Nothing’s funnier.
Besides the turnstiles, the industry also knows that home video really drives the eventual bottom line - that an overseas sales - and Real Steel will clearly have both. Jackman’s manicured machismo is just as popular in Asia and Europe as it is in the US and he opens big around the planet. Similarly, once an “event” film hits theaters, especially one that taps into a boy’s adventure tale and action figure collection mentality, it almost always translates into a known sell-through/Netflix commodity. Even the most mediocre product (read: Transformers) will find purchase among parents more than willing to sacrifice their kid’s aesthetic for a few hours of ‘mostly’ quiet time.
Now, is it unfair to judge this film based on a two and a half minute trailer tailored specifically to peak demo interest levels? Sure. Is Shawn Levy someone who, while creatively bankrupt, is capable of making a commercially acceptable product? Without a doubt. Could Real Steel actually be something enjoyable and sophisticated, sold as a techno-kid tearjerker but in reality, a rollicking good time? Absolutely. However, common sense and several years immersed in the artform known as film suggests otherwise. If you see a couple dozen movies a year, this actioner has potential. Multiply that number by ten, and then do so again, and you’ve got too much experience in a darkened cinema to see anything other than pandering.
At its core, that’s what kidding is - pandering. It’s placating the audience by giving it what you have scientifically and statistically determined that it wants. We’ve ranted before about how Hollywood has micromanaged its product down to fit the specific needs of specifics viewers. Moronic fairytales as examples of contemporary slapstick boy/girl love stories? Check. Borderline seizure instilling animation with scripts ripped straight out of a mid-level stand-up’s set? Check. Paltry PG-13 terror based on the latest horror trends. Check. In this case, Real Steel appears to be Michael Bay by way of Mattel, a console title waiting for IGN and Attack of the Show to sing its replay value praises. It’s primed for maximum moneymaking impact. Whether its crap, or a cash machine, remains a partial puzzle.
In retrospect, Robot Jox was not one of Gordon’s best. The limited availability of advanced special effects options meant that most of the giant machine battles had to be rendered via stop motion, which definitely distracted a bit from their overall effectiveness. One can easily imagine the film being refashioned as one of the studio’s summer blockbusters, a bunch of oversized automatons crashing into each other for the sake…oh, wait. Anyway, as long as there is a dollar to be dug up, kidding will continue. Real Steel may be able to survive the process. Given it’s pedigree, however, that’s relatively hard to believe.