Film Rating: B+
There is not a singular original screw in “Real Steel’s” robotic body. One can point to just about any element of the film and find an older movie that did the exact same thing, and from frame one, there’s never any doubt about where the story is going. It is predictable as hell, an exceedingly familiar movie.
But it’s also a very good one. Director Shawn Levy takes a time-tested story and executes it extremely well, demonstrating how much energy and talent matter when crafting a film. All involved clearly had a lot of love for the material, and that enthusiasm translates straight through to the viewer. There’s enough heart on display to make these well-worn tropes exciting again, and I think kids especially will lose their minds for it. Read more after the jump...
“Real Steel” takes place in a sort of alternate reality where humanity has invented sophisticated robots, and since these robots can engage in far fiercer carnage than mere humans, ‘Robot Boxing’ has now become America’s pastime of choice (I wonder if there’s Robot Baseball in this world?). Hugh Jackman stars as Charlie Kenton (and it’s a testament to the strength of the film’s characterization that for the first time in a few weeks, I actually remembered the name of the protagonist without looking it up), a down-on-his-luck operator of robot fighters who used to be one of the best boxers in the world before machines put him out of a job.
Charlie’s debt is piling higher every day until a pair of lawyers show up to tell him the mother of his son Max has died. Charlie has never been around Max before – he doesn’t even know the kid’s age – but in an attempt to make some quick cash, he demands one hundred thousand dollars in exchange for taking care of the boy while his foster parents are away. One night while searching a robot scrapyard for parts, Charlie and Max stumble upon an old ‘sparring’ bot called Atom; Charlie thinks Atom is junk, but Max sees something more in his new robot buddy, and demands that Charlie get Atom a fight.
You can instantly tell where this is all going. Atom is better at fighting than anticipated, Charlie and Max start to bond, and in the process, Charlie learns how to be a good father. We’ve seen this all before, perhaps in separate movies and definitively not in the context of robot boxing, but there’s nothing unfamiliar about the story. It doesn’t matter. The father-son dynamic develops at a measured, natural pace, and none of the emotions ever feel forced. The first act does an excellent job at building Charlie up as the biggest jerk on the planet, a dark characterization I respect the film for not shying away from, and after that, they humanize him gradually, one step at a time. On the surface, it’s easy to make jokes about this being “Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots: The Movie,” but in truth, the film isn’t about the robots at all. It’s about a neglectful father learning to connect with his son over something they both have a passion for; the robots are only there to illustrate that passion. It’s natural, it’s heartwarming, and yes, when the robots get in the ring, it’s absolutely thrilling.
Most of the success of the story can be attributed to the cast, because if we didn’t believe in these characters, the movie would promptly fall apart. Hugh Jackman, never content to half-ass a performance, inhabits the role of Charlie with the same confident, roguish charm he brought to Wolverine, but he also lends the character a greater sense of heart than he ever got to exhibit in “X-Men.” As Max, young Dakota Goyo is a real find; unlike most child actors, he has a real screen presence, and though some of the dialogue he’s saddled with is cringe-worthy, Goyo makes it all look natural; the highest praise I can give is that I never got the sense this kid was ‘acting,’ and that’s also a testament to Shawn Levy’s direction.
Rounding out the main cast is Lost’s Evangeline Lilly as Bailey, Charlie’s business (and possibly romantic) partner. I love the casual dynamic Bailey and Charlie share; their backstory gives the proceedings a healthy sense of weight, and though there’s some smooching in the last act, the romance is just background decoration, organic instead of obligatory. Jackman, Goyo, and Lilly all have tremendous chemistry, playing very well off each other from start to finish; in particular, Goyo and Jackman made me believe in every second of the father/son journey, the key to making the film click.
My favorite character in the film, though, isn’t played by a human at all – it’s Atom, the little-bot-who-could. In the tradition of silent, non-human best friends like ET, Atom expresses a lot just through movement, and endears himself to us greatly. His purpose in the film is really just to symbolize the relationship between Charlie and Max, but nevertheless, I was surprised at how much I found myself caring for this robot by the time the final fight rolled around. Atom epitomizes the kind of emotional connection “Real Steel” forges with the audience; on the surface, he may just look like a worn-out hunk of junk (i.e. the film’s atrocious marketing), but when you get to know him, you’re shocked at how invested you become in everything he does.
Even though the film is first and foremost an emotional success, it would be criminal to neglect the technical merits. Shawn Levy has constructed a wonderfully engaging, three-dimensional world, one very similar to ours but with a few technological differences. The robots themselves are all masterfully created, a mixture of animatronics and CGI, so I hear. In either case, they look completely realistic at all times (well, for giant fighting robots, at least), and the fight choreography is simply marvelous. Sugar Ray Leonard served as a consultant for the boxing, and the matches were brought to life with the same motion capture technology employed in “Avatar.” As such, there’s an enormous sense of authenticity to each match, enough to make us really believe that if humanity had this technology, we would actually use it for something as frivolous (and awesome!) as robot boxing.
The film isn’t without its flaws. As much as I love the fight choreography, many of the early matches are too sonically frantic, so full of noise that the soundtrack becomes distracting, if not outright annoying. An obnoxious character or two can be found in the film, including a cowboy rival of Charlie’s played so over-the-top by Kevin Durand that I was praying a robot would rush in and rip the man’s head off. But “Real Steel” is primarily a kid/family film, so I understand why that sort of violence would be frowned upon. That factor also makes me less critical of some of the film’s other flaws; certain bits of dialogue are too on-the-nose to feel natural and Danny Elfman’s score is overly sappy, but these problems may make the film more accessible to children. As an adult, I understand Charlie’s principal character flaw, but a child might need an extra line or two to highlight this, and I don’t bemoan the script or the music for being extra-specific at times.
In fact, I really want kids to see this film; like many of the Spielberg classics of old, it has the kind of heart, enthusiasm, and imagination to get children excited. They won’t know “Real Steel” is constructed out of well-worn narrative tropes: they’ll just be swept up in the emotion and excitement, and even though the adults in the audience can probably pinpoint which moments are stolen from “Rocky” or “E.T.” or a handful of other classics, “Real Steel” still makes it all feel fresh again. The marketing made this one look like a “Transformers”-esque action frenzy, but it’s really a down-to-earth family film, and I urge parents and their children (eight or nine and up, perhaps) to check it out.