It will be impossible for Real Steel to avoid comparison to Michael Bay’s Transformers films, since they’re all ostensibly about giant anthropomorphized fighting robots. But despite the surface comparisons, the films don’t actually share very many qualities. The Transformers series is brash and loud, while Real Steel is a classic heartfelt underdog story with the DNA of Rocky, Over the Top, and many more sports movies pumping through its robotic veins. It’s manipulative in all the right ways – similar to this year’s other “against all odds in the ring” movie, Warrior – and even though it’s about robot boxing (I know, I thought it sounded stupid, too!), it’s actually a surprisingly effective story with relationships at its core.
In the near future, human boxing has become too boring for audiences thirsty for destruction. Flesh isn’t capable of sustaining the big hits that crowds demand, so boxers are replaced by robots. Ex-contender Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is down on his luck, touring the country doing robot boxing exhibitions he controls remotely from the sidelines. When his ex-wife dies, Charlie becomes responsible for the well-being of his estranged 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo). Stuck with the kid for the summer, Charlie soon realizes that Max is a video game nut who knows a thing or two about robots. With Charlie’s prizefighting experience and Max’s busted up old robot Atom (equipped with “shadow” function), the two set out to make it to the top and end up repairing their damaged relationship in the process.
For me, the biggest surprise of Real Steel wasn’t how much I enjoyed it, but that it came from director Shawn Levy. This is the same man who directed The Pink Panther remake, my disdain for which has been well-documented on this site. (I literally didn’t smile the entire time I watched that movie.) He has also directed less offensive fare, including the Night at the Museum movies and Date Night. But this is his first foray into any genre that isn’t comedy, and Real Steel proves the man deserves a chance to direct any genre he wants, since he convincingly pulled off a science fiction/sports/action/drama.
This is a pure underdog tale, and though the setting and broad concept may be original, it’s pretty standard as far as the story goes. But it’s a well-told story with some outstanding visual effects. Levy and his screenwriters make every beat work, and add some real zest to the fight sequences by using real life boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard as the motion capture actor for Atom, Max’s robot on the rise. The blending of CGI and practical effects is outstanding, combining computer created characters with real eight-foot-tall robots.
Hugh Jackman is believable as an ex-boxer, and his character is the kind of reckless rogue you love to hate. Evangeline Lilly plays Bailey, Charlie’s ex-lover, gym owner, and mechanic who helps the father and son team forge their relationship. Thankfully, Lilly separates herself from her “LOST” character Kate Austen; this isn’t a brilliant performance from the actress, but it’s enough to see she’s got potential and good to see she didn’t get pigeonholed into playing the same exact character in everything. And though it’s a well-documented fact that I’m not crazy about kids in movies – they are almost always written as either an annoying hindrance to the protagonist or a sage giver of advice – Dakota Goyo didn’t bother me because his character had perhaps the most common sense of anyone in the film. For the most part, he made good choices and smart suggestions, which is a relief to see on screen every once in a while. There are also some tiny moments for guys like Kevin Durand (in a “LOST” reunion with Lilly) and the inexcusably underutilized Anthony Mackie (Lilly’s co-star in The Hurt Locker…huh), but not enough from either to get excited about.
This movie was one of the biggest surprises of the fall for me, considering I laughed aloud when I saw its trailer for the first time. Despite the ludicrous concept, the story (based on Richard Matheson’s short story) is surprisingly effective and the movie earns all of its moments. To sum it all up in a quote for the poster: Real Steel is the real deal. Until next time…