Trash becomes treasure in two differing sports movies

Thursday, October 13, 2011

There are a pair of sports movies playing in theaters right now, "Moneyball" and "Real Steel." The films couldn't be any more different: one of the films tells the fact-based story of how the general manager of the Oakland A's took a series of personal and professional risks in an effort to change the business of baseball, the other is a fantasy about a near-future America where human-commanded robots engage in vicious, limb-to-limb combat to satisfy a blood-thirsty crowd. You shouldn't need more than one guess to figure out which is which, although both films have a surprisingly similar central theme - the idea that one man's trash can be another's treasure.

"Moneyball," based on the book of the same name, stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, a former Major League washout-turned-team executive who - after losing three of his biggest stars to the free-agent market - is told by the team owner that he doesn't have access to the kind of money he would need to replace those players with equal talents. So, in either the boldest or most foolish move of his career, he rejects the player recommendations made by his scouts and coaching staff, and with the help of a Yale-educated stats nerd named Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill), he puts together a team made up of players that have been overlooked or outright rejected by their clubs for one reason or another. Initially, the decisions don't pay off; it looks like Beane's plot will be an embarrassing flop. But as the team settles in - and Beane begins to work through his own failures as a ballplayer - success does indeed come to the club.

Once again, Pitt shows that he is a genuinely skilled actor. I've always been impressed with his ability to inhabit a character; here he imbues Beane with a deep desperation to succeed, but an even deeper insecurity about his own ability to do just that. Hill's Brand (a fictionalized version of a real person) is a painfully shy man who only becomes brave and outgoing when talking about the numbers.

As directed by Bennett Miller, "Moneyball" is well-constructed, if a bit slow at times, and the focus on the off-the-field activity plays a little drier than I had hoped. Still, it's a smart, interesting look at the business of baseball, and it's certainly worth seeing. Three and a half stars (out of four).

"Real Steel," which is based in part on a science fiction story by Richard Matheson, stars Hugh Jackman as a former boxer who now has no sport to participate in; human fights have fallen out of favor because the audience's hunger to watch the combatants actually rip each other to pieces outpaced the amount of fighters who actually preferred retaining said pieces.

As I understand it, the original story (which I admit I've never read) was a grim one about a washed-up boxer who decides to dress as a robot to fight against the machines. In the movie's far-less tragic universe, robot boxing has become a top draw, and in order to stay in the game, Jackman has adapted. Instead of fighting, he operates fighters in an underground cash-only circuit. Unfortunately, his desire to make a quick buck has led him down a potentially self-destructive path. After his robot suffers a particularly humiliating (and destructive) loss to a bull at a county fair, his troubles are increased: not only does he need money for a new fighter, but an old enemy (played by Kevin Durand) wants to collect on a big bet.

Just as Jackman thinks the news couldn't be worse, he's served a summons to appear in family court. An ex-girlfriend has passed away - and left behind a son. The boy's aunt wants to adopt him, but Jackman must sign away his parental rights. He makes an agreement with the woman's husband to do this, but he wants a large cash payoff to sign on the dotted line. The would-be adoptive father has his own request, though; Jackman must watch over the boy for the summer while the couple vacations in Italy.

The boy (played by newcomer Dakota Goyo) turns out to be a lot more street-smart than Jackman had planned on, blackmailing his way into his father's business. Along the way, trying to find scrap to rebuild another thrashed fighter, Goyo discovers an early generation sparring robot named Atom. The boy begs his father to help him book a fight for the robot; after a number of rejections, Jackman finally agrees to put Goyo's lanky discovery into a match. From there, the robot begins the underdog climb that leads to the film's climax, a world championship bout pitting Atom against a fearsome fighter named Zeus.

Along the way, the movie hits a bunch of the same notes as other fight films. "Rocky" comes to mind almost instantly, so does "The Champ." But "Real Steel" is still a surprisingly spry and entertaining movie in its own right, and a lot of the credit goes to the young Goyo. Jackman is fine as the ex-boxer who rediscovers that principled, disciplined part of himself that he thought he'd left behind when he hung up his gloves, but Goyo, who could have been the stereotypical "cute" movie kid, manages to portray a range of emotion - from tenderness to anger - without hitting a false note. Plus, the fight scenes are genuinely rousing and even (for the most part) believable. The robots are exceedingly well-designed; these are some cool and nasty-looking machines. I can imagine a lot of little boys (and little boys at heart) will be wanting to find one or two - or more - of them under the Christmas tree in a couple of months.

"Real Steel" is definitely worth checking out. Three stars.

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