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The Great Train Robbery

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It’s okay, kids. Get fat and out of shape. In the future, sports will be contested by robots anyway.

Thunderchrome

Real Steel is now on Blu-ray
Real Steel is now on Blu-ray

Set in 2027, Real Steel tells the heartburning... er... rather... the heartwarming tale of a boy and his no-good father as they bond over a boxing robot.

Real Steel is based on a 1956 short story by legendary author Richard Matheson, whose work includes Duel, I Am Legend and numerous other classics. The trouble is Matheson’s story was expanded by Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven then turned into a screenplay by John Gatins. So that means the writers of Real Steel collectively represent a résumé that includes the original Twilight Zone, Coach Carter, The Fall, and The Notebook.

No wonder, then, that Real Steel is a grating, coldly calculated mix of elements that missed one ingredient: the dreaded fatal disease. It tries to appeal to families with its father-son drama (c’mon man, in this context, when the relationship is between a wise-beyond-his-years 11-year-old and a self-absorbed asshole, there’s only one place for things to go) but it also, given its PG-13 rating, aims to rope in the teens with its high-tech robot-on-robot violence.

Sparky Balboa

Real Steel isn’t a bad movie, it’s simply difficult to embrace the storyline full tilt and there isn’t enough thematic savviness to generate a wider-ranging appeal.

That said, there are two outstanding aspects to this production. One is the technically superb presentation of the “Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots.” They come to life with a tremendous flourish that demonstrates the same ambitions behind the Transformers trilogy (all four movies are Steven Spielberg productions). The other is star Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), who puts up a great fight trying to make this awkward mix of heart and steel work.

Well, okay, there’s a third. This movie’s “Mick” character (the cantankerous, old coot trainer in the Rocky movies) is a hot chick named Bailey (Evangeline Lilly, The Hurt Locker).

However, Real Steel, which ostensibly wants to be a heartfelt tale of human growth in a mechanical world, is really hosting an artificial heart. The superficial story doesn’t take advantage of the near-future setting; there could’ve been much more meat on those bones of steel.

Compounding this movie’s conflict of appeals is the rather abrasive young protagonist, Max (Dakota Goyo, Resurrecting the Champ). Goyo’s performance is fine; it’s actually really good. The problem is with the character of Max; for a kid who is supposed to be sympathetic and heart-tugging, he’s a little too tough and all-knowing for his own good.

Steel Cage

Ultimately, it’s the grand display of artifice during the robo-boxing matches, intended to rouse audiences and generate Rocky-style cheers, which undermines the movie the most. The matches are surrounded by all-too-serious news reporting and obnoxiously overwrought commentating by over-enthusiastic sportscasters.

The fight scenes go for the easy and the obvious typecasting of sports coverage instead of seeking out something more innovative and interesting. But there is a nice little play on words, something that serves as the kind of wink-wink Real Steel could’ve used more of.

It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.

At one point a robotic combatant is introduced into the ring with the extremely familiar description of haling from “parts unknown.”

Blu-ray Exclusives

This review refers to the two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. Also available are a single-disc DVD and a three-disc set (Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy).

Overall, this set makes for a nice package.

Countdown to the Fight: The Charlie Kenton Story is a 14-minute faux documentary about the much-ballyhooed Zeus v. Atom match. It captures some of the misty-eyed dramatics of those ghastly heartstring-tugging ESPN human interest stories. It also provides some background information regarding the downfall of human boxing and the rise of robot boxing. It’s clever enough and this type of character-based supplemental is always appreciated.

The Blu-ray includes Disney’s needlessly extraneous Second Screen gimmick (the content should be self-contained within the Blu-ray) wrapped around the director’s commentary and picture-in-picture clips. At the time of writing this review, the Real Steel Second Screen app was not available for download.

However, the commentary itself is quite informative and director Shawn Levy displays a considerable amount of charisma, enthusiasm, and energy. He comes across as a good guy with an eye on providing a film school-caliber track. Even without the Second Screen spin, the self-contained commentary and picture-in-picture behind-the-scenes footage paint a complete picture of the making of the movie, particularly in terms of narrative, production design, and visual effects. Extra props go to Levy for his perspective on Spielberg’s involvement and for his reference to U2’s The Edge.

Sugar Ray Leonard: Cornerman’s Champ is a 6-minute clip about the legendary boxer’s involvement as a boxing consultant on the production. It’s fluff, but it’s good fluff.

Also included is an 18-minute collection of deleted and extended scenes, including pre-clip comments from director Levy. The bulk of the scenes revolve around a recurring theme involving decorative butterfly pins, which becomes a point of interest given Levy’s comments about seamlessly extracting the theme from the final cut. On the down side, the introductory clips of Levy (recorded in conjunction with his Second Screen appearance) are shot using very irritating camera movements and odd cropping choices. No doubt it’s intended to be candid and “fun,” but the approach is more distracting than appealing.

Blu-ray Extras

There is also a selection of supplementals presented on both the Blu-ray and the DVD.

The Making of Metal Valley is a well-done and comprehensive 14-minute behind-the-scenes look at the Metal Valley effects and stunts.

Building the Bots (5-minutes) reveals Spielberg’s hand in the production as he advises to create practical, articulated on-set robots to supplement the CGI robots and thereby create a greater sense of realism, particularly in terms of aiding the actors’ performances.

The DVD includes an edit of the Second Screen feature commentary audio, clipping out the references to the Blu-ray enhanced presentation and picture-in-picture featurettes.

There is also a 2 1/2-minute blooper reel. Aside from one Wolverine reference and a slip-up on the part of Dakota Goyo, there aren’t that many laughs to be had. “We on!”

Picture and Sound

The Blu-ray picture quality (presented in 2.35:1) is awesome, offering a terrific level of contrast and clarity. It’s particularly enjoyable to see the level of detail involved in the CGI robot boxers.

The English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is also impressive and works as a nice showcase for the movie’s fairly eclectic musical tracks and arena ambience. The Blu-ray also offers audio in English 2.0 Descriptive Video Service, French 7.1 DTS-HD HR, and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital.

Optional subtitles are available in English for the Hearing Impaired, French, and Spanish.

How to Use This Disc

Before duking it out with the movie, check out Countdown to the Fight: The Charlie Kenton Story as a neat little primer to the feature film. For those so inclined, Levy’s commentary track is well worth a listen.