This movie could have been so terrible. More than any big-budget movie of the last several months, “Real Steel” has been subject to virtually unending derision. The concept – “futuristic robot boxing” sounds like a bad mashup of “Transformers” and “Rocky” with a healthy dose of Rock’em Sock’em Robots thrown into the mix. While I still wanted to see this one (I’m a fan of Hugh Jackman) I wasn’t expecting much.
But, as it turned out, there’s far more to this movie than meets the eye.
The year is 2027, and violence-hungry audiences have led to the creation of savage robot-boxing leagues. (The idea is that two bots can inflict greater carnage on one another than humans could). Washed-up trainer Charlie Kenton (Jackman) – himself a bare-knuckle boxer in a former life – has suffered a string of bad luck, resulting in the accumulation of heavy gambling debts. Out of nowhere, he receives word that an old girlfriend has died, leaving behind Charlie’s long-estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo). Sensing an opportunity to profit from the situation, Charlie agrees to turn over all custody rights to the boy’s aunt – in return for a $100,000 payment from her wealthy husband. (In short, he is a self-absorbed slime). Before he can yield custody, however, Charlie needs to take care of Max for the summer.
After a disastrously poor investment decision, Charlie hits rock bottom and starts trawling for loans. Max, however, takes a liking to an old sparring bot nicknamed Atom. It quickly becomes clear that Atom may be Charlie’s last chance for success…and the one thing that might bridge the gap between him and his son.
Does it veer toward the corny? Sure. Is it somewhat predictable? Sure. But there are reasons that this sort of universally-appealing story has remained popular for generations.
For starters, some misleading comparisons must be dispelled. “Transformers” was entertaining, but utterly devoid of actual substance. With “Real Steel,” audiences actually have an emotional connection to the characters. This story could have held up perfectly well without the robot-boxing elements – all the technological razzle-dazzle is merely instrumental to the greater plot. In this sense, the film (based on a 1956 short story by sci-fi legend Richard Matheson) owes much more to Asimov than to Hasbro.
And the robot boxing – unlike the combat in “Transformers” or virtually any other movie of the like – is genuinely exciting. Boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard was a consultant on the fight scenes, lending real intensity to the fights. At times, it’s easy to forget these are two machines going at it – the excellent use of motion-capture technology makes the scene feel like two armored men slugging it out.
But, as previously mentioned, any focus on the robots or technology involved misses the real point. This is the story of a father and son – more specifically, a disengaged father trying to handle a son who has lost all respect for him. The relationship between Charlie and Max is treated with genuine sensitivity, and doesn’t come off as romanticized. Just like the more explicit “Courageous,” “Real Steel” emphasizes the real, deep value of parental involvement with their children. That’s a message our culture could certainly stand to hear, whether through a faith-based inspirational drama or a sci-fi action flick.
From a technical standpoint, “Real Steel” is a winner. The effects are never overpowering, but always come second to the human drama. Director Shawn Levy mercifully resists the temptation to use handheld cameras – allowing the viewer to actually comprehend what’s going on. Jackman is excellent as always, and his co-stars are nearly as strong. (The one flaw: the requisite product placements are remarkably unsubtle and distracting.)
There are zero problematic worldview issues to speak of in “Real Steel.” Some of the combat gets a little intense (robots are dismembered and decapitated in sprays of multicolored machine oil), there’s a brutal beating scene (when Charlie’s old gambling buddies catch up with him), and some profanity (nothing worse than the average sports movie). Overall, though, there’s nothing that puts “Real Steel” off limits for viewers older than nine or ten.
If’ I’d seen this movie as a tween or young teen, I would have died and gone to heaven. There’s enough action to appeal to even the most jaded viewer, plus an emotionally resonant story with universal appeal. When I watched it, the whole theater audience (all ages) was cheering and applauding throughout the entire film. Is it a “feel-good” movie? Sure. But that’s not always a bad thing.
Elites may turn up their noses at “Real Steel” over its outlandish premise. I like a lot of “artsy” movies (“Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Fountain” are two of my all-time favorites) but I also realize that not every film needs to deal with misery and pain. If you don’t like sci-fi or sports movies, “Real Steel” won’t change your mind. But as pure popcorn entertainment laced with uplifting themes, “Real Steel” is a great success.
A solid, exciting adventure film with a surprising amount of heart.
Normalized Score: 6.9