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Real Steel may be set in a not-so-distant future, where man has perfected artificial beings for the sole purpose of satisfying society’s bloodthirst, but it’s remarkable how many films from Hollywood’s past Shawn Levy references before the final bell rings. Some are obvious. Countless reviewers are falling back on various iterations of “Rocky with Robots” in their critiques. And while that’s accurate, it also misses the other movies Levy … well, I don’t want to say steals from, simply because Steel already is in the film’s title. Let’s say “borrows” from, so as not to point fingers, and run through a handful of pictures that come to mind while watching Real Steel.
The central premise behind Levy’s drama is unnerving. He and screenwriter John Gatins, working from a 1956 short story by Richard Matheson, essentially say that in years to come, man won’t be satisfied by the beatings distributed in boxing and MMA rings around the country. We’re not content with spilt blood. We crave what one character calls “true, no-holds-barred violence,” but haven’t yet resorted to murder. Good for us.
So, we pool our collective intelligences together and create sleek, smart, durable robotic beings – not to fight our wars, end world hunger, or assist in laboratories attempting to cure debilitating diseases. No, we invented them so that they’d fight to the death in WWE-inspired grudge matches. And while no one actually says, “Two robots enter, one robot leaves,” the backyard brawl that takes place between young Dakota Goyo’s Atom and a towering competitor in a burned out, post-apocalyptic, cyber-punk playground dubbed The Zoo will have parents wondering why they’ve brought their kids to a stripped-down, Disneyfied remake of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. We may not need another hero, as Tina Turner sings, but when robots are pummeling each other into submission on screen, we might need tighter restrictions at the MPAA.
Did you say “robots pummeling each other into submission?” Then Michael Bay deserves a shout out. For any time filmmakers try and stage robot-on-robot violence, the man who has sacrificed a decade of his life creating back-to-back-to-back Transformers films deserves a mention. To Levy’s credit, he at least understands how to let his cameras linger on the impressive robots as they battle – something the edit-happy Bay never figured out over the course of three Transformers films. But still, when a production team can deliver more than meets the eye in a robot film, Bay’s pioneering efforts deserve mention
Jackman, to his credit, also takes a page from “Fast Eddie” Felson’s playbook for Steel, accepting bets his butt couldn’t cover and talking, rapidly, just to stay in the game. That’s the closest Real Steel ever comes to earning a comparison to Robert Rossen’s masterful The Hustler. In reality, it’s closer in stature to the Golan & Globus monstrosity Over the Top, a laughably macho arm-wrestling drama – yes, I said “arm-wrestling drama” – that starred Sylvester Stallone as a loner forced to bond with his estranged son. Again, I patiently waited for one character – either Jackman, Goyo or the lovely Evangeline Lilly – to turn their hat on backward so I could confirm that Levy was winkingly referencing Menahem Golan’s terrible 1987 film at nearly every turn, but it never happened.
Instead, Real Steel ripped off a different Stallone franchise -- Rocky -- and not the highlights of the six-film series. By introducing an Ivan Drago-like opponent in Zeus, Steel set the stage for a boxing conclusion that mirrored Rocky versus Apollo, Creed, Drago … heck, every fighter Balboa ever faced in a Rocky film. Zeus’s Russian manager, Farra Lemkova (Olga Fonda), even icily spits out a perfect Rocky IV sound bite when she says, “What Zeus sees, he kills.” Somewhere, Dolph Lundgren is calling his attorney to see if he can sue.
And once again, no one actually says “Ain’t gonna be no rematch” at the end of Real Steel, as Creed whispered to Balboa in the original Rocky. But Levy is sticking to Stallone’s template, already announcing plans for a Steel sequel, so long as this film does well at the box office. I wonder which pictures he plans to borrow from next?