Real Steel envisions the only future where the sport of boxing is still relevant; one in which all the boxing is done by giant robots, and humans merely control them from outside of the ring. I admit I was skeptical at first, but Real Steel’s unique concept, superior special effects, and endearing family-oriented story won me over.
A mix between The Iron Giant and Rocky, Real Steel is a robot boxing movie starring Hugh Jackman. It’s a family film with plenty of heart, and it makes up for what it may lack in depth with a unique concept, and some kick-ass fight scenes.
Set in the not-so-distant future, Real Steel follows Charlie Kenton, a down-on-his-luck robot boxing manager who can’t seem to catch a break. He hauls around old boxing robots and tries to score gigs. The problem is, when he does find a fight, he usually loses.
In debt to everyone, Charlie is definitely on the way down when he discovers an old girlfriend has died and he has an 11-year-old son. He doesn’t care about the boy, and only shows up in court to sign him away to someone else. Finding an opportunity to make a large sum of money, Charlie agrees to take his son for the summer.
Charlie’s son is an attitudinal pre-pubescent with no illusions about the feelings of his father. He does, however, have a big passion for robot boxing, and so immediately the pair have something over which they can relate. That’s not to say they immediately get along, as Charlie has some major issues to resolve.
Young Max turns out to be a whiz at programming boxing robots. And as Charlie is an experienced ex-boxer, he is a whiz at controlling the robots they fight. Perfect combination? Of course. But the little family doesn’t find success until they unearth one of the earliest boxing robot models, what used to be called a sparring bot because it could take a beating and other robots used to train with it.
The robot, named Atom, is re-programmed and cleaned up, and before you can say “down the for the count” he is fighting at the biggest robot boxing match in the world.
Real Steel is a typical underdog story. Throw in the sports element, and the touching father-son dynamic, and you have the perfect recipe for an inspirational family drama. The futuristic elements add some freshness to the formula, and Jackman brings plenty of star power to this robotic actioner.
The film’s vision of the future is interesting in that it didn’t go overboard with a sleek “floating cars” futuristic environment. Instead, it’s pretty much an unchanged small-town America (the film’s opening scene takes place at a Texas state fair), and the cities look just as gritty as they do today.
The only hint that this is a movie based in a future time is the giant boxing robots; and once in a while a glimpse of some science-fictiony gadget, like their phones, and holographic computers. This creates an intriguing feeling of anachronism, and ups the believability of the “boxing robots” scenario. Aided by humble everyday scenery instead of CGI weirdness and green screens, this grubby realism also allows the human aspects of the story to come through.
Though at first I thought the concept of boxing robots ridiculous, I soon fell into the world of Real Steel and set disbelief aside. What I found harder to believe were certain relationship and character twists. Charlie’s character is unlikable for a large portion of the film, and his turn-around (aka reformation) is abrupt and somewhat exaggerated.
Max’s feats with the robot Atom also come across as hard to swallow. For instance, when he first discovers Atom buried in the mud at the bottom of a deep gulch, we are supposed to believe that he then lugs the 1,000-pound robot up the side of the pit all by himself (after his father refuses to help him).
Though some of the characters in Real Steel might be flawed, the robots rocked. Like some other robot movies of late, I thought the CGI and special effects top notch. There were some great practical effects as well, and the robots’ designs and fight choreography captivated. The only complaint I would have is that there weren’t enough fighting scenes.
Atom’s design was particularly effective, as he looked the most humanistic of all the robots in the film. His roundish blue eyes, and vague face, suggested gentle humanity. In fact, I’m pretty sure a couple of scenes meant to suggest that Atom had some kind of intelligence/spirit, but that part of the story was never really developed.
Jackman’s appeal just keeps growing. Even playing a largely unlikable character, he’s charismatic enough to win audiences. Dakota Goyo played Max, and unfortunately he doesn’t have the charisma to pull off a difficult pre-teen, and a generally annoying character. Goyo is competent in the role, at best.
The on-again/off-again tomboy girlfriend Bailey is played by Evangeline Lilly, who seemed to melt into the background in all her scenes with Jackman. I just didn’t think she had the necessary presence to hold her own.
Shawn Levy took a break from directing cheesy family comedies like Date Night to helm Real Steel. I appreciated his use of naturalistic lighting, and the way he upped the grittiness and reality of the environment. Everything took on this kind of dusty, muddy disheveled appearance, reflecting Charlie’s life in a fun visual metaphor. As Charlie gains notoriety and starts getting his life together, the environment also gets somewhat sleeker; certainly brighter and glitzier as they enter the world of robot boxing elite.
The story and characters in Real Steel aren’t subtle, but like Transformers I didn’t really mind. It’s an entertaining pic with awesome visuals, and a heart-warming underdog story as well. When all is said and done, it’s just really fun to watch realistic giant metal robots bash the hell out of each other.
Real Steel envisions a future where boxing has evolved into giant fighting robots. Great special effects and cool fight choreography makes this a must-see.