dir: Shawn Levy
It’s Robot Rocky. Anyone telling you anything different is a liar, and you can call them a liar to their face. Tell ‘em I said it was okay.
This might have shiny robots in it, or at least CGI approximations thereof, but in all honesty this entire flick is constructed as if by robots in a factory, except instead of using metal alloys and circuits, they’re using clichés so old Sylvester Stallone is tempted to run up and rub human growth hormone all over them because they’re so aged and creaky.
Into this technological whorehouse of gimcrackery they insert the compelling and obnoxious presence of Hugh Jackman playing a former boxer who ekes out a living having his robot beat up cows at county fairs.
I’m not making this up. In the first few minutes of this illustrious flick, Charlie is rudely awakened by children, finishes off a beer, then comes off worse during an argument with them. It doesn’t bode well for his skills as a smooth operator.
A former opponent in the ring (Kevin Durand), with a pretty poor Texan yeehaw! accent, despite or because of being a Canadian from Thunder Bay, goads Charlie into a bet: Charlie’s robot Ambush versus the shitkicker’s two thousand pound bull.
The taking of the bet isn’t seen really as the problem. From the outset, we can see that Charlie, despite being played by Australia’s Own Hugh Jackman, a handsome and intelligent man at the best and worst of times, is deeply, deeply stupid. Perhaps even borderline retarded. Maybe he took one too many punches to the brain meats way back in the day. It happens. I watched a documentary the other day about The Thriller in Manila, being the legendary title fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali back in the 70s, and after seeing the damage Frazier doled out, we are told at doco’s end by one of Frazier’s family that Smoking Joe’s voicemail message to this day included a remark about how he was the one that gave Ali Parkinson’s Disease during that very match. Yeah, I know Joe's dead, but that message of eternal meanness will last forever. Yes, it’s charming, but watching the match, it’s hard to disagree with his boast. People aren’t meant to have other people punch them hard in the brain continuously. It doesn’t improve anything in the human organism at all, and you don't have to be someone with a million dollar MRI scanner to figure that out.
And worse has happened. It is a delicious and delightful blood sport, after all. Other chaps die on their feet, or get their ears bitten off by Mike Tyson, or spend time with Mike Tyson. At the very least it might explain why Charlie is so fucking stupid throughout most of the movie.
With his robot gone, and now even deeper into a debt spiral that flowed pretty deep as it was prior, naturally a bolt comes from the blue, informing us that Charlie is even more of a fuck up than we thought, since it involves a kid he abandoned a bunch of years ago.
Max (Dakota Goyo) now has no mother thanks to an acute case of deathening, and his rich auntie (Hope Davis) wants to get full custody of him. Why should she? Because she’s rich, goddamnit. And aren’t rich people the best suited to raise Our children? Frankly, it’s becoming more and more clear to me as I age disgracefully that only the rich should be raising kids. Us poor great unwashed are making such a hash of it.
It’s not really about the money, anyway, because, as with all these kinds of templated movies, Charlie wants nothing to do with Max. But he is forced by dint of circumstance and by the prospect of money, and more money, to buddy up with Max on the road.
They, like, don’t like each other at first, but, over time, as Max sees how brain damaged his biological father is, and as Charlie realises that this eleven-year-old chap is smarter than he is, they bond as people temporarily thrown together by sloppy plots usually do.
What they bond over is a shared love of robot boxing. And who can blame them, because, wow, it really is the sport of fuckheads. Sorry, I meant to say kings, you know I meant to say kings, yeah? Okay.
When Charlie pretty much gets paid a packet to look after Max for a while, he squanders the money on a fight robot called Noisy Boy. Desperate to earn some scratch because he’s run out of beer money, he enters a robot he doesn’t know how to operate in a fight any moron could see he couldn’t win. Even Max, helpfully, incredulously asks him if he’s capable of thinking through the repercussions of his actions.
No, he’s not, at least not yet. We’re going to have to traverse a lot of cliché-strewn ground in order to get there. It’s going to take two hours, but we’ll get there. When they take a sly trip into a robot junkyard to steal parts. After a brush with death, Max finds, or is accidentally saved by an old robot.
I wonder if this robot, called Atom, will become important in the plot, as an ultimate underdog, through whom father and son work out their issues, get the love and support they otherwise won’t be able to get from each other, and make some money along the way?
What else could possibly happen? In a better flick, Max would take control of the robot and pop his deadbeat father’s head like a grape, and then embark on an orgy or violence through the streets of Detroit or any other town USA. Instead he gets obsessed with the idea of winning a title, like it could actually exist, by taking on the champion, who is a robot run by boo hiss Japanese and Russian villains. Why are they villains? Because they’re Russian and Japanese. They don’t actually do anything wrong, or evil or nasty. They don’t sabotage Rocky Atom. They don’t harpoon any of Atom’s whales, or water down his vodka, or invade Alaska through Sarah Palin’s backyard. They’re just villains because Our Heroes are All-American People's Heroes.
Look, underdog flicks appeal to me, deeply appeal to me, I can’t pretend they don’t. I’m hardwired to always ache for the underdog, whether it’s in film or in real life. But there are moments where even I want to watch the villain crush the hero. This movie - very expensive, very shiny and pretty well done for the pure processed product that it is - is a very family friendly boxing – sports flick with no blood, hence the ticket-friendly PG rating. It exists purely for the market that it is intended to get money out of – the kinds of clods who like wrestling / rodeos / monster trucks / Nascar. There’s not a moment or a scene that feels like it was anything but a calculation.
In some ways, you have to admire that. Moviemaking is an industry. Businesses make money often but not exclusively to the exclusion of all other considerations. There’s nothing wrong with that in principle. It’s in the asbestos-thalidomide-Union Carbide application that the issues appear. With lazy, formulaic movie extrusion and expulsion, the only things being hurt are our brains, and souls, ever so slightly, but it’s not as if we were going to do anything useful with them anyway.
There’s not a soul involved in this flick who thinks they’re genuinely creating something beautiful, any more than hardcore pornographers thinking that they’re producing something that’s romantic or poetic when they do their various ‘things’. And we’d be fools to want anything any different from these people. Or I would be, at least.
We’re not babes in the woods. No-one seeing these ads, where robots beat on robots, or hearing Hugh Jackman yell ‘Bring It!’, could have any higher expectations or any delusions about what they’re going to get. Even then, I somehow have the capacity to be disappointed with getting exactly what I expect to get. It’s like Oliver Twist holding up his bowl at the orphanarium, asking for more gruel and being disappointed by getting it.
There’s not a single second of advancing screen time that you can’t guess before it happens. Every cheap moment of mawkish sentimentality is wrung out dry like a dirty booze-soaked cloth till even the fumes are stinging our eyes. I’ll give Jackman credit and say that it’s not that he’s terrible, it’s just a painful character he’s playing. I’ll also credit the kid with being somewhat less objectionable than the flick that surrounds him. I’ll even go so far as to say that, by the end, I was sucked in to the final fight, which goes on and on with ‘real’ world analogues too familiar to go any differently. It still wasn’t enough for me to forget that these bunches of metal weren’t sentient, had no intelligence or spark or drive, that they were being remote controlled by people playing at a game that just doesn’t make sense on an emotional level, and that none of it mattered.
Even with the Rocky I ending, my overall impression is that it was a fairly soulless endeavour that deserves the oblivion it should be consigned to, which means it wasn’t worth my time. Only you can judge whether your time is more valuable than mine, and I daresay it would have to be.
5 times Microsoft Screenplay has produced another ‘winning’ product out of 10
Charlie: “This is what it's all about! Let's make some money!” – sure, go ahead – Real Steel