Friday, 14 October 2011

Real Steel

In the year 2020, as crowds looked for bigger thrills, humans were replaced by specialist robots in the sport of boxing. A once great fighter, Charlie Kenton now buys scrap robots and puts them in illegal street fights to try and win money and pay off his debtors. One day, Charlie finds out his ex-girlfriend has died, and thus his son Max is placed in his custody for the summer. Together they fight robots and go searching for in junkyards for spare parts. One night, whilst junk hunting, Max falls over a ledge, but is saved by an overhanging robot arm. Max uncovers Atom, an obsolete sparring robot, and becomes determined that he can take him home and make him a prize fighter, despite Charlie’s objections...

Real Steel is somewhat of an oddity in today’s film market, in that it’s not a remake or a reboot or a sequel to anything. Instead, this is a 2 hour family-orientated film based upon both a short story from 1956, as well as the subsequent episode of The Twilight Zone written by the same author. Add to that it’s been brought to life by the director of Night at the Museum 1&2 and Cheaper by the Dozen, as well as starring one of world’s most recognisable actors and Real Steel is certainly an intriguing proposition. So does it hit its mark? Sometimes, but it’s extremely hit and miss.

There are as many positives as there are negatives about this film. On one hand, Real Steel is a well made Hollywood film with plenty of drama and action to keep the momentum going for its 2 hour duration, and there’s a classic Hollywood father and son plotline running through the middle of a story about fighting robots. But then, it’s the classic father and son plotline which adds to much schmaltz to the proceedings and somewhat burdens the film and overcomplicates what is a very simple premise, not helped by the fact that the robot plotline is something we’ve seen in countless sports movies for decades now. I was fairly surprised by this film, I didn’t think it would impress me as much as it did, but just as much as I’m willing to praise Real Steel, I need to balance things and say that at times, it was uninteresting, predictable, clichéd and almost boring.

Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, the former boxer turned robot controller out to make a quick buck. His character is a composite of various underdog sports films protagonists, combined with a composite of various unlikely fathers who suddenly find themselves with child, there’s nothing new in this character, but the development is done well and the transformation of Jackman’s character is something which really shines for the film and becomes a key piece of what works in this. Dakota Goyo plays his son Max, and does so with gusto and bravado, putting in a real adult performance whilst retaining the naivety of youth and inexperience in the big, adult world of robot boxing. Evangeline Lilly is nothing more than background and is extremely replaceable as the female lead and Jackman’s love interest. A good solid supporting cast back up the lead performances well.

In my mind, there’s some similarities here between this and Super 8, and thus all those Spielberg family film, as the sci-fi inspired outside event becomes the catalyst for bringing together an estranged father and son. There are certainly touches of Spielberg about it, but it isn’t done in Real Steel with the same kind of humanity and smart, realistic dialogue that is seen in Spielberg’s work. Whether it’s because of the ludicrous premise of fighting robots I’m not sure. Speaking of which, seeing a larger than life, CGI-created 21st century version of Rock’ Em Sock ‘Em Robots on a big screen is fascinating, and the robots do look very well done, the fighting realistic due to a combination of animatronics and mo-cap, and as is standard, the computer animation holds up well and does its part.

Having said all that though, Real Steel was as impressive as it is disappointing. It’s a great family film, and considering I went into this with low expectations, I was certainly pleasantly surprised. Having said all of that, I personally could not look past all the clichés and plot and character rehashes. I felt like I’d seen this film many times before in many different guises. The plot is predictable, more so than most films I’ve said that about in the last few months, and although the characters are strong, it’s because they’re old characters from old films. Frankly, Real Steel is Rocky with robots, with the upcoming fighter story and the change in attitude in the protagonist and the development of a relationship (only this time between a father and son rather than a husband and wife). Real Steel is, for lack of a better word... Robotcky. But is that a problem? Well, yes, because Real Steel does everything that Rocky does, but Rocky did it first, and Rocky did it better.

Rating: **1/2

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Johnny English Reborn

After a failed mission in Mozambique, Special Agent Sir Johnny English has fled to Tibet to learn martial arts as penance. However, when MI7 come calling for him for a new mission, he answers the call and returns to London to a vastly changed MI7, with all new personnel running the show. English is informed of a plot to kill the Chinese prime minister, and it’s down to him to find out who the willing assassin is and to stop them. What he uncovers is a plot of deception, lies and former enemies. But how does his failed mission in Mozambique 5 years ago link in with everything?

Johnny English surfaced in 2003 and become one of those cult British comedy films with plenty of silly action and funny one-liners, all held together by a great performance by Rowan Atkinson. I liked it, and I wasn’t the only one, as it grossed over 160 million dollars worldwide. It seemed to be ripe material for the beginnings of a new British comedy franchise, and yet nothing ever came afterwards, it disappeared into the ether. Finally, though, 8 years later, Johnny English has been reborn in... Johnny English Reborn. It’s been 8 years since the original, so can this pick up where the original started, can the tale of an idiot spy still be funny after 8 years. Surprisingly, yes!

After a short pre-titles sequence in Tibet explaining what’s happened in between films, the action picks up and becomes its own film without hanging on to the past. Everything’s rather nicely explained and everything ties together by the end, there isn’t a single loose end left by the explanation of the 8 year gap. Reborn contains the same kind of humour we saw in the first, only with less excrement humour, and it hasn’t aged a bit. Seeing Atkinson back in form is great, and seeing him share screen time with Tim McInnnerny making silly jokes takes you back to the days of Blackadder and those great, classic British sitcoms which this film clearly takes it cues from (again).

Speaking of Atkinson, he’s great again in this playing an idiot, something he’s perfected over the last 30 years, and so delivers the lines with the pretence of seriousness, all the while knowing how ridiculous and silly his dialogue is. His comic timing is still spot on, and he carries the film on his shoulders. Gillian Anderson is solid as Pegasus, the leader of MI7, but nothing more than that, as she misses the stiff British attitude that her accent can only allude to. Rosamund Pike plays the love interest, and does that well, but isn’t really given enough dialogue or screen time to develop, certainly nowhere near as much time as Natalie Imbruglia was given in the first film. Dominic West plays Simon Ambrose, the suave Agent 1, and does so with flourishes of panache and he really takes glee in his role. Daniel Kaluuya also does OK as the young agent assigned to be English’s sidekick, but is no more impressive than that.

The one thing that’s missing from Reborn is Johnny’s original sidekick Bough, played by Ben Miller. Atkinson and Miller had some great chemistry in the original and it’s seriously lacking between Atkinson and Kaluuya, and Kaluuya isn’t given as big a role as Miller was, so he doesn’t get the sharp one-liners either which is a real shame. Also, the plot of the film itself is kind of a rehash of a number of spy/James Bond films, but then if Johnny English is a parody of those films, shouldn’t the plot be a parody as well, full of clichés? The plot takes a number of twists which you should be able to see a mile off, and the film is full of Chekhov’s pistols (one for the film students there) throughout which set up various action points. There’s nothing surprising about this film, but a film like Johnny English isn’t truly about plot, it’s about dialogue and how funny that dialogue is. Thankfully, it surpasses the 5 laugh minimum a comedy needs, and although it isn’t a laugh riot from start to finish, there are a couple of laugh out loud moments, moments which are seriously lacking on most modern comedy films.

Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable film, retaining that trademark British humour that the first one was based around. Obviously some of the jokes won’t travel well outside the UK, but then what does that matter when this is so clearly a British film made for a British audience. The obviously increased production budget allows for more stunts and special effects, and when you add those to the funny script, it creates a really nicely done parody of the James Bond/espionage film genre. All that said, this isn’t a great film, and to be honest, I’d rather not see a sequel to this. I think now that Johnny English has been reborn, he should fade away again before he dies a slow, painful death.

Rating: ***