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Real Steel

TedFlicks Rating: ★★★★☆ for “Real Steel”


“The Kid with a Bike” & “Real Steel”

The Kid:  4 ½ stars out of five; $12.00 ticket on a scale of $0 to $13.50

Real Steel:  4 stars out of five; $11.00 ticket on a scale of $0 to $13.50



At age 36 Cécile De France may be the hottest actress in French cinema today.  Certainly it was impossible for your critic to take his eyes off her whenever she was on screen in “The Kid with a Bike” (“Le Gamin au Velo”), the drama cum buddy film screened for the press at the New York Film Festival.  She is a star.  However, in “The Kid,” the kid (Thomas Doret) is the lead.  De France is not even introduced until near the end of pic’s first reel although she is the kid’s major protagonist.  In the 2010 “Hereafter” where she starred opposite Matt Damon (and worked in English as well as French), she was the total glamourpuss.  In “The Kid” De France is a hard-working hairdresser who lives over the shop.  Still, it is impossible to dress her down sufficiently to suppress her glamour.  She is one of those statuesqe western European women whose fine facial bones, height, fabulous figure, and unwillingness to succumb to the blandishments of plastic surgery make her irresistible.

“Real Steel” is also a buddy film.  The 127 minute comedy/fantasy/sci-fi adventure directed by Shawn Levy features the too-cute-for-words Dakota Goyo as Max Kenton, the 11-year-old estranged son of Hugh Jackman’s Charlie Kenton in a futuristic, come-from-behind, underdog skein that should have been the summer feel-good movie of 2011.  Why it is being released in the fall is anyone’s guess.  Maybe US distributor Disney feared it would bomb.  Pic is notable for more product placement than your critic has ever seen.  Disney-owned ESPN figures prominently.  At least it is not out of place as a TV sports network in a movie where sports is central to the plot.  Not so much can be said for bing.com, Sprint, and others.  At least their excuse is stadium signage.

Although it is set about a decade or more in the future, the storylines of “Real Steel” have been done to death.  It is a tribute to the filmmakers that they can still wring some audience emotion out of these tired warhorses.

Plot is fairly simple.  Ex-boxer Charlie Kenton is a loser who travels the country in an ancient International Harvester truck which serves as home and machine shop in addition to wheels.  He owes money everywhere, and he is too prey to his own recklessness to make a go of it in robot boxing, the sport which has replaced human boxing in the future-world where the public’s blood lust has become too much for mere flesh to handle.

In the first two reels he blows through two robots, one of them a $45,000 star of the circuit from Japan.  In the midst of his hard luck some old acquaintances arrive to tell him that his girlfriend of more than a decade ago is dead and the he is now responsible for their son, Max.

Now the fun begins.  Max has a few issues — like a dad who was not around for a decade — and the last thing Charlie wants is a kid.  His ex’s sister, however, wants custody of Max.  Charlie cons her wealthy husband into a deal — the couple get custody in return for $100k.  The catch is that Charlie has to look after Max for the summer until the couple return from Tuscany.

The rest is easy.  Max has brass ones.  He also speaks Japanese — thank video games.  And he’s a computer genius who is totally addicted to robot boxing.  He commands the Japanese robot in Japanese and re-programs it to understand English.  Instead of staying with struggling gym owner (remember that there are no longer human boxers) Baily Tallet (Evangeline Lilly) who is both hot and too plucky for words, Max forces Charlie to take him on the road.  It’s a rough ride.  Max starts calling Charlie’s shots with the robots.  It turns out that Max is right, much to Charlie’s chagrin.  They get beat up over one of Charlie’s bad gambling debts.  They almost get themselves killed.  And then, at pic’s most dangerous moment, they find Atom in a junkyard.  Atom, buried under sludge, is an older robot with a couple of very advanced features:  Speech recognition and visual shadowing — in other words, if Atom is programmed to follow a person’s movements, it will.  To give the special effects guys credit, Atom is the most endearing of anthropomorphic robots.  And just wait until you see Max and Atom dance!

Charlie and Max bond, despite the many speed bumps.  Atom, which Charlie dismisses as junk, turns out to be more than a viable competitor in the ring.  Max emerges as a star who can command a stadium audience.  And before you know it, Charlie, Max, and Atom are in the title fight.  Of course, it all hinges on whether Charlie can reconcile with Max after turning him over to his aunt and uncle.  All Max ever wanted was for Charlie to fight for him.  Max has abandonment issues.

Jackman’s Achilles Heel in “Real Steel” is Goyo.  As Max, Goyo steals every scene he plays.  Hope Davis as Max’s aunt and James Rebhorn as her wealthy husband are there only to move the plot along.  The bad guys, more caricatures than characters, are more interesting.  Lilly is underutilized.  She provides Charlie’s backstory and what could be a love interest, but by the final reel, she is more or less part of the scenery.  However, the rags-to-riches story accompanied by an unabashedly romantic soundtrack and cuts to characters in tears in the final reel, telegraph to auds what they ought to feel.  Other than overdoing it more than a tad, all the cheap shots work.

Special effects are subtle enough not to distract.  That is a lot to say for a special effects movie in 2011.  Jackman is convincing both physically and as an actor as the washed up boxer turned two-bit hustler.  But pic’s best scenes feature Max and Atom, the robot.  Lensing by Mauro Fiore is more than up to par.  Sound recording leaves little to be desired.  Set design is another matter.  The State of Michigan must have extended enormous tax breaks to “Real Steel.”  New York scenes were shot in Detroit, and it shows.  Pic’s only concession to the future, other than some fancy holographic computer screens (sporting the HP logo), is the Cadillac Sixteen which made the rounds of the auto shows a few years ago.  It still looks futuristic.  Way to go, GM!

“Real Steel” carries a PG-13 rating.  That is amusing for a pic whose star is supposed to be 11-years-old.  There is a little language (including some uttered by Max), but really nothing in pic will fly over the heads of kids or offend them.  They may actually like the robotic boxing matches.

“The Kid with a Bike,” is a far darker and ultimately more satisfying story.  Thomas Doret as Cyril Catoul, like Max of “Real Steel,” has abandonment issues.  His mother is dead.  His father, Guy Catoul (Jérémie Renier) is in financial difficulty.  Guy has consigned Cyril to an orphanage following his custodial grandmother’s death.  He’s about the same age as Max.  And like Max he has brass ones.  The similarities end there.

Cyril is not funny.  He is sullen and dangerous.  He is on a mission to get his dad back, but his dad has done almost everything possible not to be found.  He has even sold Cyril’s most prized possession, his bike.  Cyril acts out, and to Doret’s credit, most of it is believable.  Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne share director and writer credits in this Belgian production which seems to be set in France.  All the dialogue is in French with English subtitles (most of which are better than average translations) for American auds.  The pair coaxed a far above average performance from a child actor, and got all thesps to work with total credibility.

Pic’s theme might be the cycle of violence or the law of unintended consequences.  The incident which brings protagonists Samantha (De France) and Cyril together is an incident at a clinic where Cyril tries to escape his orphanage guardian.  He clings to Samantha, a patient in the waiting room, too tightly, it seems.  There he blurts out his story about the missing bike.  De France is so convincing an actor that without uttering more than two sentences, she totally conveys onscreen her vulnerability to Cyril.

Accordingly it comes as no surprise that when she tracks down Cyril’s bike and returns it to him, Cyril asks if he can stay with her as a foster child on weekends, and she agrees.  Cyril’s request is a plot to find his dad, and Samatha becomes his partner in crime.  Samantha’s loyalty to Cyril develops rapidly.  It has to.  Pic runs only 87 minutes — half an hour shorter than “Real Steel.”  Kudos to the directors for knowing when to yell “Cut!”

Cyril is a handful.  His resentment at abandonment, his bad manners, his anger, all get him into trouble.  They also cost Samantha her boyfriend.  It doesn’t hurt that the same kid steals his bike twice.  (Note to Cyril:  Get a bike lock.)  The second time, he beats up the bicycle thief, who is a bigger kid, in front of the latter’s gang, and gets the attention of gang leader Wes (Egon Di Mateo) as a plausible petty criminal, earning the nickname, “Pitbull.”  Pic offers some suspense in the burgeoning relationship between Cyril and Wes.  It looks at first like a slightly older pedophile seducing a younger boy.  It is anything but.  Wes wants Cyril to do robberies for him.  Cyril is an apt pupil.  With a baseball bat, Cyril dispatches both a news agent and his son and makes off with several hundred Euros.  Unfortunately, they see his face before passing out.

Cyril’s dad has a new job as a chef, and he says, at Samantha’s insistence — she won’t let the guy lie to his kid — that there is no room for Cyril in his new life.  As a sort of votive offering, Cyril offers his cash from the robbery to his dad — “I stole it,” he says.  Dad dispatches both him and the money fearing a prison sentence for himself.

From this point forward, dénouement comes quickly.  It’s a chain reaction.  Violence begets violence.  The cops are onto Cyril as soon as he returns as a last resort to Samantha, whom he had injured with a scissors trying to escape her for the blandishments of Wes.  Wes goes to prison.  Cyril is forced to apologize to the news agent at a hearing, and Samantha agrees to pay damages on his behalf.  So far, so good.  She takes full custody of Cyril, but the seeds of destruction have been sown in the form of the news agent’s implacable son.  A chance encounter with Cyril sets him off.  At first it appears that he kills Cyril.  His dad concocts a cover story in case Cyril is dead.  Actually Cyril is just passed out and bruised, much to the relief of news agent and son.

The restraint shown by the filmmakers at this point is one of pic’s finest achievements.  It is an equivocal ending, not a neatly wrapped package, but it is fitting for a pic that is neither comedy nor fantasy.  Somebody has to end the violence.  To their credit, filmmakers let the screenplay speak their message softly rather than hammer it home.  Perhaps they give too much credit to auds for intelligence.

Tech credits, including lensing by Alain Marcoen, cutting, set design, and sound recording, are all top notch.  Costume and makeup are credible.  Only one significantly jarring note stands out, although it may be useful for certain auds:  Following each of pic’s turning points the soundtrack features riffs from the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto for piano and orchestra.  Sophisticated auds do not need the audio cue.  Pic is not yet rated for America, but it may be a tad too subtle and more than a tad too thought provoking for kids.  Leave them at home.

Jackman is the star power in a Hollywood version of the abandoned child film, which, despite its flaws and hackneyed story works well largely thanks to his and Goyo’s comic chops and Goyo’s charm.  It doesn’t hurt that the special effects are under the top.  Disney should have doubled down on this one.

On the other hand, the far more realistic and more disturbing counterpart from Belgium engages auds in a way that they will think about long after they have forgotten “Real Steel.”  And it doesn’t hurt that Cécile De France gets a lot of screen time.


Real Steel on Netflix

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