Real Steel & the problem with boxing movies

MinnPost by Max Sparber

I was planning on writing about “Real Steel” when it came out, but didn’t get around to it. Well, here it is, three weeks later, and it’s still playing, although I suspect it won’t be for long. I went to see it last night at Block E, and was one of three people in the theater. And generally, no matter what a film is, if it has some action in it, a little crowd will gather at Block E to see it. Sometimes you just have a few hours to kill, and why not kill them by watching robots beat each other up?

If you’ve seen the trailer for “Real Steel,” it looks to be a film version of a children’s game from the Marx toy company (later Mattel) called Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, which features two blockheaded plastic robots that swing their fists when children hammer on plunger buttons. Eventually, a robot will lose his head, in which case the round is over. The game is a lot of fun if you are a kid, as it requires no real skill, but instead the ability to hammer away unmercifully. This is perfect for children, as they are amoral creatures with a terrifying capacity for violence, and that violence must be directed into safe activities or they will burn down neighboring houses or wander around neighborhoods, smashing mailboxes.

Nowhere in “Real Steel’s” promotional material is Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots mentioned, although there is a scene in which a robot’s head flies off, which I think must be a nod to the child’s game. Instead, the original story, “Steel,” is credited to Richard Matheson, who is one of the titans of fantastic literature. Matheson’s short stories were favorites on “Twilight Zone,” and, in fact, “Steel” was adapted into an episode of “Twilight Zone.” That was a pretty melancholy piece, in which, in a future in which robots box each other, an aging pugilist puts on a robot suit when his robot short circuits, and loses. “Portrait of a losing side, proof positive that you can’t outpunch machinery,” Rod Serling intoned at the end. It’s easy to see why Serling liked this story — his first big success was a similarly grim teleplay called “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” about a boxer who has been brain-damaged by his career. Serling liked his boxing stories to be a little depressing.

“Real Steel,” however, has Steven Spielberg’s imprimatur on it. Unless he is stopped, Spielberg will always make a film about a man learning to be a better father, and so that’s what we have here. Hugh Jackman plays a former boxer turned robot-handler, and he plays the role as pure palookaville, with a hammy working-class accent and a lot of “Hey JEEEEEZ” mannerisms. He’s chronically incapable of making good decisions, and it’s hinted that this is because of his disappointment that his career as a pugilist fizzled. He’s saddled with a little boy he abandoned, which is good for him, because somehow he fathered an 11-year-old with the personality of an irritable 55-year-old. The kid gets an old sparring robot up and running, knocks his father into shape, and somehow manages to play the world of professional robot boxing with the florid genius of Don King. And so, astonishingly, mere weeks after they start fighting with their scrap-heap robot, they have a match with a multimillion-dollar champion monster called Zeus, which is the sort of robot that steps into the ring, crushes the head of another robot, and then steps out again to go to his suit, which is filled with supermodels, for some reason.

You can’t piece together a film out of a series of sports-film clichés without it straining credibility, and this film offers up not merely a strain, but one of those pulled muscles that leaves you hobbling around for weeks, your calf feeling like a knot that refuses to unclench itself. But I knew that going in. Boxing movies are tricky things, and tend to either be very good, such as last year’s “The Fighter,” or far from good, such as this year’s “Knockout” starring Steve Austin, which seemed to have been written by a computer that had been fed plot points from “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “The Karate Kid” and ordered to make a new film.

The difference seems to be that good boxing movies find real boxing stories, or at least investigate the real world of boxing, whereas bad boxing movies are just poor xeroxes of older boxing movies. Heck, look at the diminishing returns of the “Rocky” franchise. The first one was superb, and then the series became increasingly divorced from reality and enraptured by the theatrical spectacle of boxing. Whatever dubious pleasures “Rocky IV” had to offer, such as James Brown performing “Living in America” as Sylvester Stallone entered the ring, the film nonetheless no longer took place in anything resembling the real world.

It’s a pity, too, because boxing is not wrestling. The pleasures of boxing are not those of theatrics and spectacle, but those of watching hardscrabble opponents match up with a troubling but undeniable gift for violence. A well-fought boxing match is as much of a dance as it is anything else. And while “Real Steel” poorly impersonates the hardscrabble, to its credit, it gets some of the dance right. The boxing matches were created by simulcam, the system developed by James Cameron for “Avatar,” in which a computer converts human actions into animation and places it in the camera in real time, so that the director can see what is essentially a live animated performance.

The filmmakers hired real boxers to perform as the robots, and brought in Hall of Famer Sugar Ray Leonard as adviser. And so, unexpectedly, the most believable thing in “Real Steel” are the scenes in which two robots throw punches at each other. I guess Serling was right, in a way: You can’t outpunch machinery.

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