In theory ‘Rocky with robots’ sounds awful, doesn’t it? In fact, most of Shawn Levy’s directorial output – ‘A museum where the exhibits come to life,’ ‘The Pink Panther starring someone who isn’t Peter Sellars,’ – sounds pretty awful in theory, and most of it ends up being pretty awful in practice, we’re sorry to say. Yet despite being shamelessly sentimental, wildly overwritten, and going out of its way to fist-bump every sports movie and estranged father-son cliché in the known universe, Real Steel is simply impossible not to enjoy, with even the stoniest of hearts likely to exit the theater bursting with optimism and punch-drunk on redemption.
A mish-mash of bizarrely conflicting ideas, Real Steel is a little bit Rocky, a little bit Transformers, with nods to E.T. and occasional detours into cult nonsense territory, the likes of Over The Top. Set in a not-too-distant future where human boxing has been usurped by giant robot fighting machines, that can deliver the kind of bloodless beatdown for the baying crowds that two humans never could. Onetime prizefighter Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) works the fight circuit with his over-the-hill, falling apart bots, built from whatever he can salvage, dodging his many angry creditors, and trying to dig his way out of a huge hole by consistently doubling down on increasingly long odds. With his stable of bots in pieces, and newly saddled with his estranged son, Max (Dakota Goyo), following the death of the boy’s mother, Charlie takes a reluctant shot at fading glory on the back of a beaten-up sparring robot named Atom.
While the robots are most certainly the draw here, it’s Jackman who anchors the movie as the down-on-his-luck chancer. His commendably unflattering performance walks a mightily impressive line between deadbeat dad and outright dick while still managing to retain the sympathies of the audience. Evangeline Lilly makes the most of an underwritten role as the despairing former flame, and unlikely owner of a failing boxing gym. But the real revelation here is young Dakota Goyo as Max, who, despite being impossibly precocious, gives one of those performances that makes everyone’s inner Louis B. Meyer wave his cigar around wildly, proclaiming “that kid’s gonna be a star!”
While motion capture might be a little bit old hat post-Avatar it’s still mightily impressive when realized amidst real-world surroundings as it was with Caesar in the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes and again here. These robots are teeming with personality, the inspiration for their colorful creation pulled from everywhere from Roman gladiators and the WWE to Pixar and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express. Whether it be giving a young boy the warm embrace his father never did, or fighting for his life in the ring, Levy is careful to always place Atom at the center of a relatable human endeavor and as such the character never feels like a cold special effect.
While the central spine of Real Steel is the father-son relationship – bridged by the iron willed Atom who, as per the formula, takes the robot boxing world by storm with his infectious endurance to the point of landing an unlikely shot at the title against the undefeated Japanese monolith, Zeus – there is a handy sideline exploring the emasculation of recession. Charlie’s livelihood was literally taken from him by machines that could do his job better than he could. Seeing Charlie match his heart, wits and ring smarts against the superior tech of steely-eyed Japanese design guru, Mashido (Karl Guru), you could read Real Steel as an allegory for the struggle of American industry in an increasingly automated global marketplace.
Even if you don’t really feel like looking that deep into it, there is plenty to enjoy on a surface level. Yes, Danny Elfman’s score is shamelessly manipulative. Yes, the story is on rails from the opening shot to the end credits. Yes, Shawn Levy all but hoists aloft whatever emotion you’re supposed to be feeling at any given time proudly on a ring card. Yet it all comes together to such rousing effect that you forgive the rudimentary mechanical nature of it all. Jackman and Goyo enjoy a sparkling chemistry together, while the robot fight scenes are arresting and coherent in a way that the Transformers movies never were. If nothing else, Real Steel should certainly serve to make Michael Bay thoroughly ashamed of himself when the lights go out at night.