If Michael Bay did Rocky…
Real Steel will either be a guilty pleasure or a Hollywood cheese-fest, depending on your point of view. Its concept alone is like a shrink-rayed Transformers movie, only in a father-son-underdog environment. What it has in its plus column is Real Steal, directed by Shaun Levy (Night at the Museums) and produced by Steven Spielberg, seems to know it’s erring on cheesy and just accepts it, providing an enjoyable romp you can see coming, but many will find hard to begrudge for its charm.
Set in the near future where boxing is a top-sports attraction, Real Steal collects the bumper pack of traditional father figure flaws for a 12A film. Hugh Jackman’s ex-boxer (check) Charlie Kenton is down on his luck, permanently hustling, and always looking out for number one (check). He drinks a bit too much - without being a full blown alcoholic (check) - is reckless and lacks judgement (check), and he is estranged from his son and evasive of responsibility (check, check, bingo!).
So with the character arc and ending pretty much programmed in, the audience can settle in and enjoy the shameless underdog-movie throw-back ride. Real Steal starts with Hugh Jackman’s Charlie down to his last robot, and on a C-grade fairground circuit fighting his bots against animals. He makes several bad bets, is generally a bit incompetent and winds up broke and indebted, before getting further bad news – his ex-girlfriend has been killed, leaving custody of his 11 year old son Max (Dakota Goyo) in the balance. Max’s rich aunt and uncle are desperate to adopt Max, and old Charlie sees this as heaven sent, as he gets to leverage some more cash for his adoption waiver signature. The only condition: due to logistics he must take Max on for the summer.
Charlie isn’t particularly interested in Max – who seems to be taking his mother’s death very healthily – and Max sees right through Charlie, but it turns out the enthusiastic blonde-haired blue eyed kid (I assume Spielberg clones these child actors) is a big robot fighting fan, and tags along for some more mis-matched fights. A few ducks, sways and disagreements later the pair are again at rock bottom, and rooting for spare parts in a rainy junkyard. It is here that Max happens upon an old sparring bot, Atom, buried in the mud.
Naturally Charlie thinks Atom is a hunk of junk, but Max persists and turns out to be right (lesson one for Charlie coming right on time). For while Atom is just a sparring bot, that he is built to take punishment means he can last much longer than others expect. He also has a shadow feature - meaning he copies the moves of his handler – which results in several obligatory, but undeniably cute, scenes with Max as he tries to teach Atom some moves, and again expectedly plays into the big-fight ending.
For the rest of the story, cue the climbing-to-the-top montage and father son gradual bonding, fast fallout, and timely resolution beats. They meet a few bad-ish guys – usually foreign - and apparently high-tech robots along the way, and Evangeline Lilly (Lost, The Hurt Locker) plays an off-on old girlfriend of Charlie’s who runs a robot boxing gym and is there to remind us that Charlie wasn’t such a bad stick in days gone by, and that he almost made it all the way as a boxer (checklist long since melted).
However, for all its real-imitation-cheese, the ride in Real Steel is fun – with no lull or obvious misstep. Wrapped in a small father son story, the scaled down robot fighting works in terms of both action and tension in ways Transformers never could. Neither film/franchise is exactly deep, but Real Steel feels more balanced for avoiding a plunge into robo-geddon. Perhaps more simply put: this is a human story with robots, and not the other way around.
Levy used advanced motion capture techniques to animate each of the robots, and the effects are near photo-real and seamlessly integrated into the live action. Levy’s directing is also unobtrusive: reserved in the human moments, but intense and jumpy in the action, which sets a good rhythm without being shouty. And in terms of acting Hugh Jackman and Evangeline Lilly are also understated – in a Hollywood redemption film way - until 12A exuberance gets the better of them when ringside. Only the “bad guys” feel slightly… cliché seems a redundant description here…. irrelevant (and technology metaphors abound given the regular Russian and Japanese v America subtext) but they aren’t the focus in Real Steel.
For the focus is old fashioned father-son feelgood fever. With fighting robots. So if those strings resonate for you – or if you’re a 5-11 year old boy - Real Steel will likely fall on the charming side of the divide. If it doesn’t, well then it probably never will.
Either way Real Steal is feel-goody and Hollywoody, but a well told feelgood-y Hollywoody story. Whether this drives you nuts or endears itself to you will depend on you, but Real Steel is certainly consistent in its delivery. Me? Turns out I’m a softie. It was a guilty pleasure indeed.
Review by Jonathan Guyett