Real Steel is the kind of 80’s PG-13 action-adventure/comedy-relationship flick you’ve been waiting for since, well, the 80’s. Loosely based on the Richard Matheson story “Steel” (and by loosely based on, I mean took the central idea of boxing robots from…), Real Steel follows down-on-his-luck ex-boxer Charlie Kenton (Jackman), set into a near-future funk where his boxing career was taken away as human pugilism was replaced by the bigger show of giant robots beating each other to “death”. Charlie struggles more against his own bad decisions and his fragile ego more than anything else, which seems to lock him into a constant state of broke-ass despair. Enter his long-abandoned son, now motherless, who sits waiting to see what’s to become of his life. Will he be ushered off with the Dad he never knew, or adopted by his mega-rich, but clueless aunt? Grifter Charlie quickly sees the angle and ends up playing summer Dad in exchange for a big payday. Cue sidewalk stand-off between estranged father and son, hit the sad music and we’re off, right? I thought so, but this one quickly surprised me.
The movie wastes no time with explaining the ins and outs of this near-future, most of which takes place in gritty back alleys and stretches of empty highway and, aside from the robots, there are very few techie marvels and special FX. That’s one of the things that keeps the movie grounded and keeps the focus where it should be, on the father/son relationship and the boy-and-his-robot relationship. Unlike, say… Transformers or I, Robot, the FX never obscure the heart in this one. Despite the lazy similes employed all over the reviews – “Rock Em’ Sock Em’ Robots”, “Rocky with robots”, “Over The Top meets Transformers” – this movie is all of those things, and yet none of them. It is a soaring, high-spirited, redemption story about a shitty dad and a tough kid. It is an underdog story about a washed up has-been getting one last chance to make it to the show and it is the story of a lonely kid and the unconventional friend he refuses to give up on. That may all sound corny, but done properly, those tropes always become classics. Real Steel comes so very close, it almost pained me to see it not quite make it.
Director Shawn Levy has proven his abilities with family-friendly action comedies like The Pink Panther and the Night at the Museum films, but he’s hobbled here by a terribly clichéd script that hits too many lame notes with the supporting characters, specifically with the uninspired character of “Bailey” that even Evangeline Lilly fell flat with. There were also a lot of played out stereotypes with the Kevin Durand and Anthony Mackie characters that seemed, not only unnecessary, but detrimental to the positive flow of the rest of the film.
Even with those few small failings, Real Steel is thoroughly enjoyable, from the roaring magnificence of the Danny Elfman score, to the breathless action scenes with behemoth robots pummeling each other senseless (choreographed, in part, by the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard!). It is highlighted by a pitch-perfect performance of Hugh Jackman, moving from selfish ego-driven con-man to, well, I’ll let you see for yourself… The biggest surprise for me was young Dakota Goyo, who not only equals Jackman scene for scene, but actually manages to steal a few along the way. Probably most recognizable as the young God of Thunder in Thor, this kid is one to look out for.
All in all, Real Steel is a great Saturday night out at the movies, a cool flick to share with your 9 or 10 year-old, and one to pull off the shelf every so often for a pick-me-up.