Friday, October 14, 2011

Fix It Friday: Real Steel

There is a real art to the underdog story. You start with a character you can root for, someone you like and/or relate to and can really get behind. Then you put that character up against impossible odds, and just when it seems like all hope is lost, your character's heart, tenacity, faith and sheer willpower drag them through to an incredible victory. And everybody cheers!

Karate Kid. Seabiscuit. Rocky. Rudy. Major League. We've seen it time and again and we just keep coming back for more, because that addictive underdog story sweeps us up and carries us on a tide of feel-good tinglies right out of the theatre.

Real Steel was not that movie.

Reel Steal wanted to be that movie. It wasn't trying to be Death Race or Running Man or any other kind of dystopian-social-commentary-anything. There were moments when it almost wanted to be Free Willy (if Willy was a giant robot rather than a giant whale), but in this edition of Fix-It Fridays, we're going to teach Real Steel how to be a feel-good underdog story. Ready? Let's get to it.

**STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Spoilers! We got 'em and we're not afraid to scatter them wantonly throughout the post. Consider yourself warned.**

Let's start by looking at ingredient number one of the underdog story: the hero you can root for. Within the first fifteen minutes of Real Steel, we know that Our Hero is running from several people to whom he owes large sums of money and we get to see how he came to be in debt when he himself instigates a reckless bet for twenty-thousand dollars which he loses when he is distracted by a random cute girl in the crowd, allowing his robot (and only source of income) to be destroyed. We also learn that he is a prick with children when he tells a trio of adorable little girls that they can only have a picture with his robot if they give him five bucks. AND THEN, as if that wasn't enough to make him the apple of everyone's eye, we learn that he abandoned his child a decade ago and does not know that child's age - consistently referring to him as nine rather than eleven (even after he and said son have started to bond). What do you say? Isn't that the kind of guy you want to see rise up against the odds and win the day? Of course he is. Especially after he offers to SELL his legal custody of his son (whom he sort of inherited after the mother died) to his ex's sister for a hundred grand and only agrees to spend time with the kid to seal the deal.

At this point in the film, I don't want to see him succeed. I don't even really want to see him learn his lesson about what it is to be a father and grow as a human being. I just want to see a robot malfunction and pummel the hell out of him. Please.

That's not an underdog. That's an asshole. Don't worry, Hollywood, it's an easy mistake to make. They look so darn similar.

Let's move on to tenet number two of the successful underdog film: impossible odds. We are shown a brief montage about midway through the film demonstrating the unbeatable awesomeness that is the super-robot Zeus. I think I might be supposed to dislike the team behind Zeus, though it is hard to tell why, unless it is based on the fact that they are beautiful, rich and intelligent enough to build an undefeatable robot. Yes, the odds of defeating Zeus are impossible, but they aren't really in front of our hero & his kid. Our heroic father-son robot team essentially call them out on national television, so... well, let's look at it like this: would you still root for David if he ran around trash-talking Goliath until Goliath finally agreed to fight him?

And the third element - victory through heart, passion, willpower, etc. Oi. When we see Rocky get knocked down and he struggles to his feet, in spite of the pain we know he must be in, we are awed by his strength of character. The makers of Real Steel were at a disadvantage. They don't have Rocky. They have a robot which cannot feel pain (regardless of the fact that they made a couple half-assed attempts to humanize it a la A.I.) and when he is knocked down and struggles back up in the face of system-failure, it isn't willpower that does it (his or his operator's), it's just mechanics. I'm not moved by my toaster's ability to keep popping up the toast, day after day, no matter the abuse heaped on it.

So how do we fix it? Oh my. Brace yourselves, darlings. This is a big 'un. It might take a while.

First, a quick fix with a flaw in the premise - the idea that a bloodless bloodsport could replace real boxing because it was "more violent" which implies that violence without actual threat of injury or danger is more riveting than the same including the potential for human injury... dude, seriously? Instead, we say that real boxing was outlawed because all of the MMA stuff had gotten out of control with folks dying in the ring and Robo-Boxing took its place as a safer alternative.

Honestly, if I were going to really fix this baby, I'd probably ax the entire opening and re-angle the entire film to be more from the kid's perspective. His is the most interesting story to me. But to keep as much of the story-structure in place as possible, we're going to let Hugh Jackman continue being The Star... and a huge douche (though we are going to down-grade his asshole quotient by a factor of ten).

We open on a scene twelve years before the action of the plot. It's Our Hero's big fight, his big chance as a boxer. The high point of his career. We see his trainer (Evangeline Lilly's dad), we see Evangeline and her puppy love for his manly self, and we see the woman who will become Max's mom. The commentators at the match are talking about the new Robo-Boxing fad and whether it will ever take off. Our hero will get cold-cocked by the Texas jerk in a Mayweather-esq move of questionable sportsmanship. He goes down and sustains some injury such that his career is over. He will leave the girlfriend (Max's mom-to-be) and his trainer and everyone and head off to try his luck in the Robo-ring, because he sees himself as a fighter and only that. He can't stop now. He will not know that Max was conceived and therefore is not a dead-beat dad on purpose. But we learn all of that throughout the course of the film. We cut away at the knockout.

What next we see is Our Hero, down on his luck, trying to string something together, strapped for cash and in debt (but not gambling stupidly) and getting unlucky (not losing due to his own stupidity and overly cocky attitude). The kid he didn't know about lands on his doorstep unexpectedly and he's stuck with him for a few months but he DOES NOT sell the child and he tries to sort of play at dad half-heartedly. I know this makes it into a dozen other cliche cheesy family-friendly movies (many starring the Rock and an adorable girl who likes to bedazzle footballs), but having your hero actually SELL his freaking CHILD... it's hard to come back from that when it comes to likeability.

When they find the robot, Atom, our hero will humor the kid at first (rather than telling him over and over again that his dream is stupid and pointless) and then eventually start to believe in the 'bot and through that begin to bond with the child. To make sure we still have conflict, he could, at some point, sell the kid's bot out from under him for the money and then have to make it right. Or perhaps child protective services becomes involved at some point and he has to prove that he's a fit father... but what we need is for him to be struggling against circumstances, not causing his own bad situation with bad choices (and the bad karma of his extreme jerkishness).

Also, the bad-guy 'bot, Zeus, and his owners could offer up some kind of prize to anyone who can defeat the undefeated robot. That gives the kid a motivation to challenge the Big Bad to a fight and provides a concrete reward if they win. It's always good for the audience to know what we're rooting for. (As it stands, I'm not even a hundred percent sure how this story ended. Who has custody of the kid?)

And after we've done all that, after we've developed concrete stakes for the prize-fight and have a root-able hero, we just hope that it's enough to counteract the fact that robots don't have feelings and can't overcome their emotional challenges. (Or perhaps we go to greater lengths to demonstrate that the robot has human-esq cognition. That could be cool. To have it "glitch" at convenient moments to help the kid or demonstrate emotion of some kind.)

That's the fix (or as much of one as I have energy for tonight). Then maybe, just maybe, then we'll have the makings of an underdog story.

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