“Real Steel” presents a version of America set in the not too distant future in which flesh-and-blood fighters have become obsolete and their successors are, ironically, big mechanical robots with video game controllers that dictate their moves. Console gamers must be eagerly awaiting for this day to finally arrive where they can play real-life Rockem Sockem robots. And monster truck rallies will eventually become passé in the eyes of the lower-class, right? So why can’t giant fighting robots qualify as a future sport?
Charlie (Hugh Jackman) is someone whose professional boxing career crumbled once those fancy robots became high in demand. Now he operates said robots with hopes to earn some money out of the gig, which he is not very good at doing most of the time. After an abominable and humiliating thrashing at the county fair where his robot fought against a bull, not only is he in gambling debt and struggling to assist his associate Bailey (Evangeline Lilly) in paying off the gym she inherited from her deceased father, he also doesn’t have a mighty machine to battle with anymore.
And just to top off the bitter sundae with a maraschino cherry, it turns out Charlie has a long lost son who is brought to his attention after he receives the news that his ex-wife has passed away. Max (Dakota Goyo) is the kid’s name and there is a big legal dispute over who will obtain full custody, Charlie or his rich aunt and uncle (Hope Davis and James Rebhorn). Through a complicated arrangement where he makes a behind-the-back deal with the husband, Charlie will take care of him for the whole summer before sending him away with his other relatives.
To say that their relationship starts off on the wrong foot is an understatement; they downright detest each other, almost. Max doesn’t like the idea that he was bought off at a price, while Charlie views the kid’s presence as a nuisance. However, they find a mutual interest in robot boxing and eventually wind up digging through the dump to find spare parts for an all-new fighter. Max stumbles across a junky old model called Atom buried in the mud and sees it as some sort of revelation after it saves him from a potentially fatal fall. Charlie just sees a sparring buddy with no chance of victory in the ring. Me? I see a more masculine version of EVE from “WALL-E.” Just look at those pixelated blue eyes.
But as sure as Rocky triumphed over Apollo Creed (…in “Rocky II,” that is), this is one of those films where the underdog rises to become the champion of the world, or something like that. Max builds up Atom to be more than just a practice bot and lines him up some real fights. He also makes use of one of the robot’s unique features called “Shadow Mode.” This allows Atom to read the movements of anybody nearby and replicate them on his own.
If you think Charlie’s former boxing training will come into play because of this special mode…you’d be right. If you expect the father and son to share their love of the sport as somewhat of a bonding experience, you got it right on the money. It is just like every fighting movie that is out there nowadays, but aren’t they ALL pretty close to each other? Complaining that films like this are unoriginal are almost a ‘no, duh’ comment. Besides, I believe it is dependent on the film’s unique interpretation of the story that decides whether or not it is of quality.
That said, would it be wrong for me to say that one of the things I did not like about the film was Dakota Goyo’s character? Does it make me a bad person to say I did not like a twelve-year-old’s acting and hold it against the film? I realize he is supposed to be a kid reluctant to warm up to the scoundrel that is Jackman’s character, but does that mean he always has to come off like a stubborn know-it-all?
However, one of the more surprising and gratifying facets of the film are the robots themselves. I am just as surprised by what I am saying than you are. The designs on the fighters bring to mind some of the more colorful, retro design that you would see in old movies, which are a refreshing reprieve from the cruddy, grimy, brown-and-grey Autobot designs in the “Transformers” films. Not only do they look better than Transformers, but they are also better suited for action. The scenes of robot boxing, while not viscerally intense (given they are robots), are well directed, not harmful to the senses and pretty fun to watch.
When all the pros and cons are added up, “Real Steel” ends up being at the least mildly competent Saturday matinee entertainment, particularly for younger audiences. I kinda liked it for as far as it went (granted, this is over two hours), but I still have my reservations. Of course we have the annoying kid, but there are also moments of forced humor (see the choreographed robot dance sequence) and fruitless attempts at adding a sentimental side that do not work. But as far as robot pictures go, it is passable. You could do a lot worse.