On paper, the film “Real Steel” is about a near-future America in which robot gladiators bash in each other’s mechanical skulls for cheering crowds — it’s a mash-up of NASCAR gearhead passion and Ultimate Fighting Championship blood lust with a dash of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots. That premise, though, makes the opening scene in the film all the more startling.
Instead of clanging thunder and CG metal mayhem, the story begins on a lonely Heartland highway with the twang of a forlorn guitar. The star of the film, Hugh Jackman, is the picture of world-weary loneliness as he drives a truck to a rural fair amid the wheat fields. He parks and stares through the windshield in silence and the camera lingers, and lingers, and lingers. It’s an unhurried portrait of regret in twilight hues, something you might expect to see in a film like “Crazy Heart” or “Lone Star.” You can almost imagine moviegoers checking their ticket stubs to make sure they’re in the right auditorium, but the scene is so evocative that looking away isn’t really an option.
For director Shawn Levy, the scene is nothing less than a declaration of intent — and that intent is to shock Hollywood (and critics) by making a heartfelt, romantic and nuanced movie that’s also about remote-controlled machine men who compete as the Rampage Jacksons of the 2020s. The movie doesn’t hit theaters until Oct. 7, but Levy — who is best known for making the “Night at the Museum” films — is so eager to earn “Real Steel” some serious evaluations that he has been inviting journalists to his screening room to watch chunks of the movie, which is far more like “The Champ” than it is “RoboCop.”
“Every time we’ve shown the movie the things that consistently get said are that it doesn’t look like any of my previous movies and that it looks nothing like what you expect when you hear ‘robot boxing movie,’” Levy said as we sat in his Santa Monica offices. “I’m so proud of that opening scene. It shows you how much you can communicate without a word. You meet this character who is a vagabond soul. He has no emotional home. He’s not rooted. You know everything about him from that silent moment.”
If Levy is trying to demonstrate that he can go beyond fantastical family films, his star, Jackman, is looking to prove that he can carry a big live-action hit movie when he isn’t wearing the adamantium claws of Wolverine. Here, he plays a down-and-out boxer who suddenly finds himself in a reluctant father role after his ex-girlfriend dies and their 11-year-old son, Max, played by Dakota Goyo, comes to live with the parent he barely knows. The two bond over boxing, which no longer involves human combatants, and invest their shared dreams in a robot gladiator. The movie, based on a Richard Matheson short story, clearly aims to appeal to visual-effects fans, but Levy and executive producer Steven Spielberg are also striving to put a human heart inside the metal-encased tale.
“The goal is to satisfy on a pure action level, but the Easter egg here is how emotional the movie is,” Levy said. “That’s frankly why Steven came to me in the first place. There are other guys that can do robot movies. But we both wanted to do something we haven’t seen — an emotional one. “
As for the robots, Levy said he knows they have to be state-of-the-art: “Look, if you’re making a robot movie in 2011 you are conscious of ‘Transformers,’ the ‘Terminator’ films, even ‘Iron Man’ in a way, and the mechanics of the characters on the screen and the way they look and move. For us, we were always policing the reality of what we are presenting and there is a lot of separation — we never have flush-on-flush plates — so you can always see into the robots and gets a sense of the internal mechanics.”
Just like “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” Levy’s movie is from DreamWorks and has Spielberg as one of the executive producers, so the comparisons to Michael Bay’s mega-franchise are unavoidable. But though Optimus Prime casts a big shadow, Levy is optimistic that his audience will find that the grease-and-grit of “Real Steel” is distinctive from the alien giants of that other mecha-fantasy.
“The scale of them is very different than Transformers; they are human-built and human-operated,” Levy said, pointing to a wall with design images on all 19 robot characters featured in the film. The robots are dented, beat-up and in some cases kludged together from salvaged mechanical parts.
“Real Steel’s” boxing matches are divided into two levels of competition — league and underground, Levy explained. “There’s the league-bots – Zeus, Axelrod and Twin Cities are some – and there’s underground-bots, like Midas and Metro, but with all of them we designed them so that the mechanics are very visible. You look at Transformers, which are incredibly cool, the way they transform is almost fantastically magical. This is different; we’re trying to go for something closer to realistic. These are not Transformers and we made a point to make them distinctive visually.”
“NASCAR is something I brought up a lot,” Levy said. “For two reasons, really. If you don’t know the story of the driver — the person at the wheel — you don’t care about the sport, it’s just people driving in circles. Our fights are always anchored by the question, ‘Who do we, the audience, want to win, and why?’ That’s why we spend a lot more time in the human story than in robots as their own creatures. The other reason NASCAR came up a lot is our league, the WRB, is massively corporate-sponsored. The movie takes place 10 years from now and the movie looks like our own world. We’re going with the central and sole conceit that this sport has evolved to a place where it is a huge platform for corporate commerce.”
Levy, a 42-year-old Montreal native and Yale graduate, has unbridled enthusiasm, but he also will need to show that he can succeed in a film sector that is very different from his previous work on “Date Night,” “The Pink Panther” and “Cheaper By the Dozen,” as well as the “Museum” films, which were box-office smashes. If zeal and candor count, the filmmaker would be hard to bet against; he acknowledges being more than a little bit dazzled by working side-by-side with Spielberg, whose movies in the 1970s and 1980s shaped the younger filmmaker’s view of how a great popcorn movie should look and feel.
Levy, a father of four children under the age of 12, learned plenty about crowd-pleasing cinema from Spielberg and he’s eager to direct a hit movie that is made of sterner stuff than his own family-fare hits. “I’ve had good fortune in the realm of comedy but, believe me, if I have to watch ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’ or ‘Night at the Museum’ one more time … I’m ready for the next thing. And this is it.”
– Geoff Boucher
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