By Sarah D. Bunting | Indiewire February 2, 2012 at 9:00AM
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Fearless Sarah D. Bunting of Tomatonation.com is making it her mission to watch every single film nominated for an Oscar before the Academy Awards Ceremony on February 26, 2012. She is calling this journey the Oscars Death Race. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here.]
Real Steel is one of those trailers that makes you turn to your movie-going companion and say, "You know, I really like [above-the-title star who's talented, attractive, and doesn't take himself too seriously but apparently just hit some kind of alimony balloon payment]. He's a nice man. I want him to make lots of money. Are you telling me there's no better way for him to do that than to star in the robot-boxing version of that infernal arm-wrestling Stallone movie from the '80s?"
I actually never saw the infernal arm-wrestling Stallone movie from the '80s, although I saw the hateful Kenny Loggins video from same approximately 17,000 times -- but I'm pretty sure Real Steel is the same shit (but with, you know, robot boxing). Robot-boxing impresario/dillweed Charlie (Hugh Jackman) is down on his luck and behind on his rent when he finds out that an ex-girlfriend has died, leaving him in custody of a son, Max, he's never seen (Dakota Koyo). The ex's sister, Debra (Hope Davis), wants t-- you know what, who cares. Robots box; the flimsy backstory excuse for Jackman to develop those magnificently ridonk biceps is totally justified; everything works out.
And the movie is pretty fun, despite going on too long, co-starring Evangeline Lilly, and trading cynically on the deep love some of us have for Iron Giant. Four things to like about Real Steel:
1. The robot boxing is fairly rad. It didn't blow my mind or anything, but I bet it looked amazing on an IMAX screen, and they get some cool shots out of it (one early fight features a disturbing visual of a robot with its leg blown off). The country-fight scene gives off a basement-cockfight vibe, and the title fight has a robot ring girl, so it's clear the visual-design team paid attention to little things.
2. The film is totally committed to the fiction that its story capital-M Matters: soaring strings, 12-o'clock camera positions of Max in the rain, old newspaper clippings of Charlie's (people-)boxing career.
3. Koyo is quite good as the kid, despite the character as written bearing Hollywood's customary tenuous resemblance to an actual fifth-grader -- and when he gets old enough for this comment not to be a felony, he's going to be really cute.
4. Lilly is fine! I had a bitchy crack all ready to go about how I understand that the Liv Tyler we already have is barely serviceable but it doesn't mean we need a second one, but then Lilly went and turned in a nice performance. I'm-a say it anyway because this is a Death Race and you take your shots where you can, but she's likeable and un-Kate-like in a thankless role. She could put on a bra now and then, though. So…I guess that's really five things to like about Real Steel for you gents, and ladies who like ladies, out there. …Wait. Six. Seven if you count the "I've got her Real Steel right here IN MY PANTS" joke I just handed y'all.
Anyhow! The Oscars. Real Steel got a nod for Visual Effects, and as deeply as I've come to resent the tech categories for horking up hairballs like this, and Tron, and the 654 hours of Harry Potter and the Masterpiece-Theatre Reunion I've sat through, now and then you get a fluffy, crunchy thing like Real Steel. No shot at a statue, but I'm not mad at it.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.