CHAPPiE (2015)

CHAPPiEHaving designed law-enforcement drones for Tetravaal, a weapons manufacturer based in Johannesburg, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) has subsequently turned his attention to artificial intelligence, despite CEO Michelle Bradley’s (Sigourney Weaver) insistence that her company isn’t interested. Before he can install his prototype programme into a damaged robot, however, Deon is kidnapped by gangsters Ninja (as himself), Yolandi (as herself) and America (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who want to use the drone for one last heist in order to pay off crime lord Hippo (Brandon Auret) — leaving him with no option but to activate the A.I. and leave it in their hands. While Ninja and Yolandi raise CHAPPiE (Sharlto Copley) as their own, Deon returns to Tetravaal to find rival engineer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) — whose own creation, MOOSE, has been deemed too heavy-duty for the police force — has declared war on CHAPPiE.

Whichever way you look at it, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was something of an empty promise. For some, it set a standard that the director’s later films have yet to live up to; for others, District 9 itself felt like little more than a show-reel designed to impress rather than entertain. Whatever criticism you throw at his sophomore project — Matt Damon vehicle Elysium — however, it feels much more like a movie in its own right. CHAPPiE again feels like the natural progression for a filmmaker still developing his style, and while it too is not without its flaws there is a comprehensiveness to it that District 9 arguably lacks. CHAPPiE is impressive for all of the reasons Blomkamp’s previous efforts are impressive, but for really the first time the story and characters match up with the aesthetics and themes.

CHAPPiE itself/himself is a marvel, both beautifully realised and vividly performed. Having previously played anti-heroes and straight-up villains, it’s refreshing to see Copley given something ever so slightly lighter to play. Like the best movie robots CHAPPiE is relatively crude and uncomplicated on the outside (a tool, rather than a Transformer), but incredibly complex on the inside. Given basic moral parameters by Deon under pressure — do not kill; do not steal — CHAPPiE is then raised by dayglow gangsters who try to manipulate him into doing just that, first by lying to him and then by making him question his creator’s authority. If Deon indeed loves him, why did he give CHAPPiE a damaged body with limited battery life? It is thanks to CHAPPiE that the film dodges unflattering comparisons to RoboCop or Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with which it shares a great deal in terms of themes and plot; Copley’s motion-capture performance has its own distinctive personality — from the actor’s telltale accent to the character’s muddled expletives.

Although named after the aforementioned robot, CHAPPiE is effectively an ensemble film — though admittedly an ensemble film that is greater than the sum of its parts. Patel, Jackman and Cantillo are by no means the best actors in the world, while Ninja and Yolandi aren’t even actors, but they are undeniably characters. Blomkamp makes full use of his multinational cast, including an inevitable cameo from genre staple and resident American Weaver, who has marginally more to do here than in The Cabin in the Woods or Paul, and while their individual performances might not always convince their relationships still manage to be compelling. As interesting as the film’s discussions of artificial intelligence are, evoking immediate comparisons to the likes of Ex_Machina, it’s the scenes exploring the quasi-familial bonds the machine eventually develops that are the most fascinating — from Deon fretting about bad influences to Ninja and Yolandi slowly adjusting to their roles as surrogate parents, CHAPPiE both moulds and is moulded by those he comes into contact with.

Funnier and more emotional than either District 9 or Elysium, CHAPPiE is Blomkamp’s most engaging film to date. It is also the director’s most ambitious, and though the ideas and plot mechanics don’t always sit together cohesively what matters is that the solutions Blomkamp finds are always creative. Having now tackled extra-terrestrials, future politics and artificial intelligence, Blomkamp couldn’t be more ready to embark on Alien 5.

4-Stars

 

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014)

Night at the MuseumWhen the enchanted exhibitions at New York City’s Museum of Natural History begin to act even stranger than usual, forgetting themselves and attacking the guests at a special evening event, night guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) delves into the history of the magical tablet responsible in search of answers. He learns that upon its discovery in 1938 it was transported to New York along with the remains of Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek), while the rest of the pharaoh’s tomb was taken to the British Museum. Together with Ankmenrah, Theodore Roosevelt (Robin Williams), Sacagawea (Mizuo Peck), Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher), Jedediah (Owen Wilson), Octavius (Steve Coogan), a Neanderthal (Stiller again), a Capuchin monkey and Larry’s son Nick (Skyler Gisondo), he travels to London to meet the pharaoh’s parents. When the tablet is in range, Lancelot (Dan Stevens) and Merenkahre (Ben Kingsley) awaken, much to the confusion of the museum’s own security guard, Tilly (Rebel Wilson).

Well, that explains it: the reason that Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian was so utterly witless was that the tablet of Ankmenrah was malfunctioning all along. Who knew? Unfortunately for viewers of Secret of the Tomb, Shawn Levy’s third and hopefully final assault on the credibility of an esteemed scientific institution, the issue remains unresolved for most of the film, meaning that things have to get worst before they can get better. As such, prepare yourself for more father-son issues as Larry attempts to talk a re-cast Nick out of a DJ-ing career in Ibiza; more monkey business with Dexter including but not limited to an extended and inexplicable make-out scene; and more textureless effects-work as a Triceratops, a nine-headed snake and Pompeii join the bounty of disappointing would-be attractions from the other films.

Compounding things further is the distinct lack of anything that could even loosely be considered comedic. Since 2009, of course, jokes have gone out of fashion in Hollywood, so audiences must instead contend with the sort of improvised gibberish that should have been left to die on stage where it belongs. The usually pretty funny but always very R-rated Rebel Wilson has been drafted in to fulfill this requirement, but you soon get the impression that all of her best work has been sacrificed to satisfy the censors. Instead we get a reference to her pony-tail looking like a yellow poo and various other observations that shouldn’t have made the outtakes. At least Wilson is allowed to speak, however, which is more than can be said for poor Mizuo Peck. Despite appearing as Sacagawea in all three films, Peck has been given almost nothing of note to do. This time she gets less lines than even Alice Eve, who plays herself in a stage production of Camelot, alongside Hugh Jackman in one of the most excruciating attempts at meta-humour in recent memory.

The supporting cast in general is hopelessly underserved, with Wilson (Owen, this time), Coogan and even Williams often sidelined in favour of Stiller (who here plays two characters instead of one). Larry and his Neanderthal doppelganger get one half-decent scene together, locked in the museum’s staff room for reasons that already escape me, but otherwise Laa’s inclusion is never fully justified; director Shawn Levy already has Attila the Hun should he require someone to grunt or groan. The most successful new addition is arguably Lancelot, though even Stevens — so good in The Guest — is pretty painful to watch. He’s clearly already struggling with the slapstick humour, so every time Lancelot’s given something even marginally more sophisticated to do he fails miserably — he’s not even funny with a half-melted nose. Worryingly, Ricky Gervais gives probably the best performance in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, comedic or otherwise, and gets the only audible laugh when called upon to vouch for Stiller’s security guard. Having been fired earlier in the film, he does so while feeding pigeons in Central Park and pretending to shout at children supposedly on a school trip. There’s also a nice moment with the lion statues from Trafalgar Square, but it’s over before it’s even begun.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb isn’t hateful — the fact that it is one of Williams’ last films gifts it with a certain poignancy, while Levy’s emphatic attempts to reference previous movies in the series despite not having any fans to service are almost endearing — but it is awful. There’s not a trace of character, wit or drama to be found. For better stories, why not visit an actual museum?

1.5-Stars

X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014)

Days Of Future Past

In 1973 the death of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) and the subsequent capture of his killer Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) leads the United States government to pursue the late inventor’s sentinel programme. Fifty years later, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen), Ororo Munroe (Halle Berry), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) and Logan (Hugh Jackman) are among the last mutants remaining after the shape-shifting robots have exterminated most of their kind. Using Kitty’s powers, Charles and Eric send Logan back in time to stop Mystique, save Trask and hopefully prevent the future as they know it from ever happening. In order to succeed he must seek out their younger selves (played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender respectively), a task that is easier said than done given that they are no longer on speaking terms, with the former suppressing his abilities with the aid of a serum and the latter incarcerated miles beneath the Pentagon. Luckily, he has Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) to help him.

I think it’s safe to say that for a while there thing’s weren’t looking very good for 20th Century Fox’s flagship superhero franchise. The X-Men had been in a bad way for some time; the saga had devolved into three separate sub-series, the continuity of which had become convoluted, often contradictory, and its biggest box office draw — the now ubiquitous Hugh Jackman — was openly considering an early retirement. Worse, the story behind the camera was often as difficult to follow as that which was unfolding before it: first, director Bryan Singer left the celebrated trilogy he had started in the ill-equipped hands of Brett Ratner, then Gavin Hood pursued a Wolverine prequel only for Matthew Vaughn to reboot the series with a largely new cast, while most recently James Mangold took on a second Wolverine spin-off, which — just to confuse matters further — acted not as a sequel to Hood’s film or a spin-off from Vaughn’s but as a continuation of the original trilogy. I did my best to make sense of it all here.

Some faith was restored when Singer announced that he would be returning to the series he started, and the revelation that he would this time be adapting the revered Days Of Future Past storyline from the X-Men comics was met with (admittedly wary) optimism. What Singer had planned was certainly ambitious: to use a time-travel plot device to not only knit together the now disparate threads — each with its own cast, often playing the same characters — but to unpick some of the narrative knots introduced into the series by Ratner, Hood, Vaughn and Mangold. It seemed from the outside as though Singer was plotting not just a movie but a rescue mission, and though he has ultimately succeeded in putting the franchise back on track his efforts go far beyond papering over the cracks supposedly left by others. X-Men: Days Of Future Past is not simply course correction — the film doesn’t tie itself in loops trying to plug every single hole (you may remember Wolverine had his adamantium claws severed in the last film, yet he retains them here) — but an attempt at something bigger and more exciting.

Considering just how much ground he has to cover Singer tackles the first act with an astonishing lightness of touch. We are reunited with Kitty Pride — complete with hitherto unseen time-travelling abilities — in a brief but brilliant opening salvo that also introduces four new characters and establishes the film’s dystopian future timeline. Patrick Stewart then explains the stakes, while also dispensing with fifty-odd years of history and laying out the various obstacles that Logan must overcome in his mission to save the future from the past. Before you know it you’re transported back to the 1970s, watching Wolverine struggle out of a waterbed and into a floral shirt — cracking wise once again after ten minutes of action-packed but sober exposition. After five movies and one gratuitous cameo you could be forgiven for expecting another glorified vehicle for Jackman; however, not only does Singer somehow manage to breathe new life into the character by putting him into a novel situation but he manages to keep Logan under strict control and just to the edge of the spotlight. X-Men: Days Of Future Past feels like the missing piece of the puzzle, and once in place it becomes clear that the series isn’t really about him after all.

Singer may give the likes of Storm, Shadowcat and Iceman one last chance to shine (not to mention Daniel Cudmore’s Colossus, who after three films of relative inactivity finally gets something to do), but his focus is ultimately on the newer cast of 1973. Despite fears of overcrowding born from seemingly endless casting announcements, Days Of Future Past is in fact a surprisingly intimate affair. This is the story of two feuding friends, and of the young woman caught in their crossfire; as McAvoy’s Charles and Fassbender’s Erik pursue their individual ends, Lawrence’s Raven/Mystique is left to strike out on her own — a path that will ultimately lead mutant-kind towards extinction. A supporting character in the original trilogy, and somewhat underserved by Vaugh’s First Class, Mystique finally comes into her own, growing to embody the struggle between revenge and redemption that has been at the franchise’s core ever since day one. It’s such a perfect fit that you wonder if it has in fact been Singer’s plan all along — when Stewart (and later McAvoy) insists that it’s never too late to bring someone back from the brink, he could almost be speaking of the franchise itself.

Where Days Of Future Past really distinguishes itself, however, is in its surprisingly unspoiled and understated second half. It’s amazing just how little of the story has been given away in the film’s apparently excessive promotional materials. There comes a point after Mystique has saved Havok (Lucas Till) from Saigon and Professor X, Wolverine and Quicksilver (who makes an impression far exceeding the time he is actually onscreen) have freed Magneto from prison that you realise you have no idea what’s going to happen next. X-Men has always been the full package — offering not only superhero spectacle but also compelling characters and real satirical edge — and Singer weaves a story that makes absolute sense, whether you look at it from a logistical, emotional or historical standpoint. This gives the third act stakes not often seen in the superhero genre; Mystique’s soul, Charles and Erik’s friendship and fifty years of history (not to mention the films audiences have grown up with) are all on the line. By the time the film ends you will have laughed, you will have cried and you will have left Wolverine-esque gashes in the arms of your chair.

With Marvel having set a precedent in The Avengers, it seems that every studio with a superhero series to its name is pursuing an integrated mega-franchise. X-Men: Days Of Future Past is really the first film to deliver on this particular promise; Singer’s latest is an emotional, intelligent and thrilling movie in its own right but it’s also a part of something much, much bigger. It’s at once a conclusion (and an astonishingly satisfying one at that), a bridge between instalments (we get flashbacks/forwards to every film in the series) and a springboard for future adventures (I for one can’t wait to see more of Blink). Singer somehow manages to have his cake and eat it; rather than dismiss the films that came before, Days Of Future Past actually validates them — as if somehow elevating them by mere association with this towering achievement. He hasn’t just re-written history, he’s made it.

5-Stars

 

Rise Of The Guardians (2012)

Rise Of The GuardiansJack Frost (Chris Pine) remembers only darkness, and yet since emerging from a frozen pond some time in the 1800s he has spent the intervening years bringing light to everyone he encounters. Having initiated a snowball fight in the present day, inspiring a young boy named Jamie (Dakota Goyo) to believe, Jack is abducted by yetis and transported to the North Pole. Once there he learns from Santa Claus (Adam Baldwin) that the Boogeyman has returned, and is invited to join The Guardians Of Childhood — along with Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) and the Sandman — in their attempts to stop him.

Despite being considered something of a flop back in 2012, Rise Of The Guardians nevertheless received strong reviews at the time of release and has since gone on to recoup its considerable costs on DVD and Blu-ray. Peter Ramsey’s film didn’t deserve the indifference it was met with, and it’s reassuring to note that the film has finally found an audience. With DreamWorks Animation continuing the good work it started with Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon, cultivating in-house talent and seeking consultations with filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro and Roger Deakins, Rise Of The Guardians is further indication that their efforts are paying off.

The opening scene is one of the most astounding of recent years, with Jack Frost experimenting with his newfound abilities and delighting in innocent mischief. The subtlety of the animation is truly exceptional, the image of Jack floating lost in front of a silent moon proving both immediately iconic and endlessly compelling. The computer effects go from strength to strength as the other Guardians are introduced; a tracking shot following one of Tooth’s fairies as it darts down from the rafters is particularly impressive, as are the tendrils of sand that alert Jack to the Sandman’s presence. Just as remarkable are the cityscapes, a number of which feature during the Guardians’ first mission: to collect lost teeth from across the globe.

While that scene might be as jaunty and energetic as any out of DreamWorks Animation’s other 2012 release, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, Rise Of The Guardians is by and large a much more muted affair. Arguably Ramsey’s biggest success is in striking the perfect balance between slapstick and sentiment, for Jack’s journey towards self-discovery goes to some pretty dark places, relatively speaking, and yet the film never gets too bogged down in schmatz. Pine is perfect in the leading role, convincing as a care-free maverick while also hitting the more sombre notes with sensitivity and sincerity. The script may not be as quotable or even as clever as some of the studios other features, but it builds an atmosphere and mood that few animated children’s movies could lay claim to.

Also worthy of note is Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack, which is almost as eccentric as the images onscreen. By turns haunting and playful, different tracks not only have to reflect different emotions but different seasons and cultures. That it all harmonises into one single, coherent score is testament to Desplat’s talents as composer, and both beautifully mirrors and compliments a film that is just as complex. The plot may be certifiably insane, hanging as it does on tooth memory, magic snowflakes and a man on the moon, but the themes are so strong — both musically and figuratively — and the animation so breathtaking that it doesn’t really matter.

4-Stars

Prisoners (2013)

PrisonersWhile at the home of Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis) for Thanksgiving dinner, Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) asks to take Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons) back to her own parent’s house to look for her missing whistle. When her father Keller (Hugh Jackman) goes to check up on them later that evening, however, they are nowhere to be seen. Brother Ralph (Dylan Minnette) remembers the girls playing on an old campervan, and the police — lead by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) — soon manage to track the vehicle down to a nearby gas station, from which the driver attempts to escape. Unconvinced that he is the man they are looking for, Loki decides to pursue new leads; Keller, on the other hand, takes the law into his own hands, kidnapping Alex Jones (Paul Dano) upon his release from custody and torturing him for answers.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, Prisoners is a lot more than just your average revenge thriller. An exploration of faith, forgiveness and the judicial system, the film uses its considerable 153-minute running-time to torment its characters and test its audience, forcing everyone to question the proportionality and justifiability of everyone’s actions. Unlike other such films, Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay doesn’t just concern itself with the central mystery: the girls barely feature, leaving the audience to fear not so much for their physical well-being but for the psychological and even spiritual toll their absence is having on the two respective families.

While Guzikowski touches on these topics, it’s testament to the talents of all involved that Prisoners is as potent and powerful as it is. Jackman’s performance blends the vulnerability of Jean Valjean with the haunted physicality of Wolverine. The film opens with Keller reciting The Lord’s Prayer while teaching his teenage son to kill a deer – at this point in the narrative he is a man prepared for any eventuality, with a basement stockpiled with supplies and a worldview that prepares him for the worst. When genuine hardship befalls his family, however, his DIY attitude isn’t quite the Godsend he expected it to be. In one of the film’s most gut-wrenching scenes, Keller tries to repeat the prayer, only this time struggling over the verses preaching forgiveness.

While Jackman may have the most attention-grabbing role in the film, however, he is by no means its only asset. Howard and Maria Bello are just as heartbreaking as grieving parents, while Minnette shines every time he’s on screen as the Dover’s shell-shocked son. Gyllenhaal too impresses as Detective Loki, overcoming the clunkiness of his Asguardian surname with an incredibly nuanced performance that belies real depth. He blinks with the same voracity with which he fights crime. For me, however, the clear stand-out was Viola Davis, who wears her desperation and helplessness for all to see. She gets slightly more to do than Bello, and steals every scene that she’s in.

Prisoners isn’t perfect, however, and as strong as the performances, the subtext and Roger Deakins’ cinematography may be there are issues with the final act that can’t really be ignored. For a film that has fought for realism and pursued morality over mystery, the denouement feels jarringly generic and like something of a missed opportunity. It is here that religion stops being theme and becomes plot, with snakes and priests and mazes overwhelming the narrative. There is a sense of gimmickry about the revelations, and what was originally bleak and brave is no longer quite as believable. This diversion into Movieland is not quite as disastrous as it proved in The Call, and certainly doesn’t derail the narrative, but it’s a needless gear-change that does disappoints regardless.

A gripping film that is nicely acted and beautifully shot, Prisoners is for the most part a provocative and pulse-pounding thriller that will hopefully be rewarded come awards season. Unfortunately, the film somewhat loses its resolve towards the end, and what started out as an innocent fence-jumping chase sequence soon deteriorates into every other murder mystery, ever.

4-Stars

The Wolverine (2013)

The WolverineFollowing the X-Men’s last stand in San Francisco, which saw him sacrifice the life of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) in order to save the world from The Phoenix, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is living in exile on the outskirts of a small Yukon town. He is sought out by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a clairvoyant who wishes to take him to Japan so that her employer — an ex-soldier Wolverine saved during the nuclear attack on Nagasaki — can repay his debt. Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) has the power to make Logan mortal, but his motivations are called into question when Logan discovers a plot for power involving toxicologist Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) and archer Harada (Will Yun Lee).

It’s easy to forget that X-Men used to be a franchise worth getting excited about. A terrible sequel, and even worse spin-off and a pretty mediocre prequel conspired to undo Bryan Singer’s good work on the first two movies. With one of my biggest issues with Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class being that it featured too much Hugh Jackman, it’s safe to say that I wasn’t expecting The Wolverine to be the film to put the series back on track.

Imagine my surprise, then, when within  minutes I was entirely on board with James Mangold’s far-flung sequel to Brett Ratner’s utterly woeful X-Men: The Last Stand. Tipping its hat to the original trilogy with a bedside cameo from Famke Janssen, the film quickly pays its dues — at least to  the extent that the previous few films deserve — before moving swiftly into new territory. Now with six appearances to his name, Wolverine ran a real risk of running out of fuel, yet Jackman somehow manages to breathe new life into the character of Logan — helped rather counter-intuitively by the script’s obsession with taking it away.

Featuring the smallest number of mutants of any film in the franchise — just Jackman’s healer, Fukushima’s clairvoyant and Khodchenkova’s viper — The Wolverine distances itself from the extant mythology its burdensome ensemble. The move to Japan only helps, giving the film a distinct look  that is visually very interesting and thematically a welcome change from the franchise’s default moral about self- and societal acceptance. It also adds to the sense of threat — you really fear for Mariko (and, when Wolverine’s made mortal, Logan too), giving the film stakes it otherwise wouldn’t have had.

The X-Men franchise  has always walked a fine line between The Avengers‘ comic-book pride and The Dark Knight trilogy’s denial. Realistic in its own way (the better films have possibly the strongest internal logic of the lot), the series has never been afraid of the occasional suspension of disbelief. Although injured, his adamantium skeleton renders Wolverine’s injuries flesh wounds at worst, and second act set piece atop a speeding train is as barmy as it is brilliant.  Even when the Iron Man-esque Silver Samurai makes an appearance towards the end, the battle leaves scars and retains an unexpected weight throughout.

A far better movie than anyone could have expected it to be, The Wolverine is a return to form for the franchise which has been struggling to find its feet since Singer left after X2. Thrilling, muscular and surprisingly thoughtful when it wants to be, this is a firm reminder that Marvel still has competition in the superhero arena. This is further supported by an air-punching mid-credits stinger, which teases next year’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past to triumphant effect.

4-Stars

Les Misérables (2013)

Les MiserablesReleased on parole in 1815 after serving nineteen years as a slave, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) finds himself indebted to the church following a foiled repeat offence. Turning his life around away from the vigilant eye of the law (Russell Crowe), Valjean meets a destitute factory worker (Anne Hathaway) and vows to take care of her child. Nine years later, he finds himself back within the sights of his old nemesis just as Paris erupts in revolution. Read more of this post

Real Steel (2011)

Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) doesn’t know when to say no. Having written off yet another boxing robot and endebted himself to yet another loan shark, Kenton attempts an escape, but not before he is confronted with the news that an ex-girlfriend has died, leaving him to negotiate custody with his estranged son Max’s (Dakota Goyo) responsible aunt Debra (Hope Davis) and uncle Marvin (James Rebhorn). Selling his son for $10,000, Charlie is able to purchase a new robot – Noisy Boy – on the condition that he looks after Max while his aunt and uncle are on holiday in Italy. When Noisy Boy too is lost to Charlie’s recklessness, and as longstanding love interest Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lily) begins to tire of his endless losing streak, Charlie is left with nothing but a set of archaic boxing skills, his own disaproving son and the outdated piece of scrap metal that Max has rescued from the local dump. Can they overcome their differences and work their way to the top of the World Robot Boxing league (WRB) with old fashioned bot Atom? What do you think!

I am going to be honest with you. Full disclosure. I did not expect to like Real Steel; I really didn’t. In my defence, the robots vs. robots genre hasn’t exactly been going from strength to strength of late: Michael Bay single handedly driving the medium-high concept further and further into the ground with every outing of his cursed Tranformerbots. Jon Favreau didn’t help things either, taking his once-esteemed Iron Man franchise and clumsily losing the point somewhere in pursuit of more machines; bigger stunts; better effects. Enter Real Steel, with its mechanical boxing avatars. Watch the trailer again, can you really blame me?

I’ll admit, it doesn’t start out particularly promisingly. Hugh Jackman reprises his role as the curmudgeonly outsider, tripping over beer bottles and picking fights he has no hope of winning. His character is (re)established with minimal subtlety, so that within the first twenty minutes he has punched a bull, lost another robot through his inability to leave a bet unwagered and – this might be important later – shouted at a triage of kids. By act two the whole film takes shape before your eyes, as it becomes clear that the hard exterior will crumble, the inner boxer will out and Jackman’s character’s consumerist attitude towards his robots will give way to a more fulfilling appreciation of the game. Just like it did in X-Men, Van Helsing and Australia. Sort of.

Despite the rent-a-character-arcs, the unrepresentatively robot-heavy marketing campaign and the inclusion of Kevin I-just-want-to-be-in-a-half-decent-movie Durand, Real Steel doesn’t disappoint. More than that, however, it actually impresses. About to enter the ring, under everybody’s radar, is newcomer Dakota Goyo – George Lucas had better be kicking himself. The kid takes the sullen child archetype and works his inevitable daddy-issues into something wholly winning and unexpectedly compelling. As an inciting incident, he is incendiary; kicking the film up the arse just as Hugh Jackman was about to do something else hugely unlikeable. This is where Spielberg’s producer credit takes hold, birthing a ghost in the machine which elevates the film to heights it had no right in reaching.

Attacking his role with a vigour far beyond his years, Goyo delivers a performance which is every bit the match of Jackman’s own, eventually agreeable, turn as unenthusiastic father Charlie Kenton. The two have a wonderful chemistry which works to offset the undeniable cliche of the film’s NET plot. Attacking the script with an earnestness and emotionality that instantly sets Real Steel apart from its blockbusting peers, Shawn Levy’s film has the same old fashioned glow as J. J. Abrams’ spellbinding Super 8. Despite the fact that the ending pretty much writes itself, the accumulated good-will hard earnt by the film’s cast (may I take this opportunity to praise Evangeline Lilly’s preternaturally emotive smile) lends it a credence and – sod it – eye-watering emotionality that after the uninspiring opening seems to come from nowhere.

Atom couldn’t be any less remarkable – with its fly-repellent face and Iron not-so-Giant design – so simple in design that the entailing robot fights are genuinely arresting as opposed to head-achingly confusing. While the odd lingering camera shot and Max’s worked persona conspire to hint at a personality, Atom remains intriguingly inanimate. It is all the more impressive, therefore, that come the inevitable confrontation with uber-bot Zues, it is emotion that drives the scene, creating a more fulfilling dénouement through a series of loaded, teary glances than it ever could with spectacle alone. Yes it’s contrived, yes it’s sentimental, yes the machinations through which Max and Atom are introduced are face-palmingly awful, but Real Steel is also enchanting, beautifully made and – I appologise – far more than the sum of its parts. I very nearly cried. Twice.