October 6, 2011

‘Real Steel’ proves comebacks are possible

Posted in Between Us column, Diversity, Entertainment, Movies at 10:49 pm by dinaheng

The punches sound painful and the premise of a washed-up boxer reconnecting with his 11-year-old son sound cliché, but DreamWorks Pictures’ “Real Steel” is an amazing blend of action, spectacle, and heart in a film that will please more than just teenage boys.

In a not-too-distant future, human boxers have been replaced by fighting robots, and  Charlie Kenton, played by Hugh Jackman, must  scramble to make a living by piecing together low-end fights for his “bots.” 

The one-time promising boxer, who seems to lose every bet he makes, is desperately looking for a break when his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) comes back into his life, along with Atom, a sparring bot that’s been tossed into a graveyard of metal trash.

The film, in theaters on Friday, Oct. 7, depicts a world where people want more violence and carnage in the sport of boxing, so have turned to technology to create machines that can kill each other in the ring. In that world, Kenton’s friend and boxing promoter Finn (Anthony Mackie) is always on the fringes, looking to set up the next low-end fight, or take wagers on a high-end event.

“Finn was always the kid going to the fights,” explains Mackie, who appeared in “Hurt Locker” and “Notorious,” as well as various Broadway theatrical performances. “He and Charlie came up together. When people wanted robot fights, Finn created this underground world of The Crash Palace, and selects the fighters who fight in his world. Everybody who wants to fight the mega fights has to go through him.”

Mackie says he modeled aspects of his character after boxing promoter Don King, who helped to turn the sport into a billion dollar business. Being an African-American actor, he says there aren’t many significant acting roles available for minorities.

“Diversity in Hollywood will continue to change and evolve, but we were in a much better position 15 years ago,” Mackie notes. “Back then, you had shows on TV like ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons.’ Today, you just have reality TV.”

The New Orleans native says he grew up in a rough neighborhood and didn’t do well in school, until a fourth grade teacher saw the intelligence behind his restless behavior and recommended that he audition for a gifted and talented program in the arts.

After discovering a talent for entertaining, Mackie went on to attend The Juilliard School in New York, where he and some friends produced the play “Up Against the Wind” at the New York Theatre Workshop, where Mackie starred in the role of Tupac Shakur.

Since then, his film career has taken off to include credits in “Million Dollar Baby,” “Eagle Eye” and “The Adjustment Bureau.” He was approached by “Real Steel” director Shawn Levy to play Finn after Levy saw Mackie’s performance in “Hurt Locker.”

“There’s this aspect of my personality that I’ve never been able to get at, so it was great to play this trash-talking showman,” Mackie says. “I was captivated by Shawn and the world he was trying to create. Ever since ‘The Matrix,’ everyone wanted to create the post-apocalyptic world. But ‘Real Steel’ is different, and it was a lot of fun hanging out with eight foot robots.”

Levy, director of such hits as “Night at the Museum” and “Date Night,” was intrigued with the idea of doing an exciting father/son sports movie with boxing robots, but make no mistake, it’s the relationship between the main characters and the robot who fights for them that Levy has made the heart of the film.

“People go in expecting to see robots smashing each other, but it’s about this underlying redemption tale,” Levy says. “My trinity of redemption is father, son and machine, three beings who have been forgotten, cast off and left behind. They get a chance at a return to grace by having found each other.”

The juxtaposition of man vs. machine has long been a theme in science fiction. In this film — set in the near future — man controls the machines, but the evolution of both are intertwined. In today’s world of smartphones, tablets and cookies on every computer, we see the same.

“I think we clearly are witnessing the incredible primacy of technology in our lives, and I’m a committed humanist,” Levy notes. “I see Facebook and Twitter as a part of our fundamental need to connect. I wanted a future that didn’t feel far-fetched or nihilistic, but one that’s still very recognizable.”

The film was shot primarily in Detroit, a city that has beautiful, old, decrepit spaces, as well as soaring, contemporary architecture.  No sets had to be built as the city’s old car factories and existing arenas were easily adapted to gave the movie a feeling of past and future.

One of the most charming aspects of the film is the relationship between Max, a tough kid who never had a dad in his corner, and Atom, an early generation robot that seems to understand more than his programming.

“Atom has something to him that feels beyond his parts and code, something resembling a soul and a consciousness,” Levy says. “If the movie has a magic to it, it’s in the wondering about that. Neither I, nor the movie, can confirm or deny it.”

While the estrangement between father and son in the film is something many will relate to, Levy makes it clear that such distances can be bridged. In his own life, the Canadian director’s parents divorced when he was three years old.

At the Canadian premiere of “Real Steel,” Levy was sitting next to his father, and recalls watching  a poignant scene in the movie where Jackman’s character asks his son what he wants from him. The boy replies, “I want you to fight for me.”

“I turned to my dad and said, ‘’You always did that for me. No matter what issues there were, you were always in my corner,’ “ Levy says. “The message I’d like audiences to get out of this is to lead with your heart. So many movies are cynical and ironic.

“This movie says it’s never, never entirely too late. We get second chances — in our relationships, with ourselves, and in what we can yet accomplish. Comebacks are possible, if you believe in them.”

Listen hard, and you’ll hear the roar of the crowd. “Real Steel” delivers a knockout punch that will make you want to stand up and cheer.



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