Release Date: October 7, 2011
Director: Shawn Levy
Writers: John Gatins (screenplay), Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven (story)
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly and Dakota Goyo
MPAA Rating: PG-13
If you’ve ever wanted to see a robot square off against a bull at a county fair, then Real Steel is the movie for you.
It’s a lightweight movie featuring a ridiculous premise (real life Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots) and every sports movie cliché you can imagine and yet somehow it works. If you are looking for a cinematic masterpiece, then you should probably avoid this one. But if you are just looking for some mindless, fun robot boxing goodness, then Real Steel is worth the price of admission.
At the start of the film, Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a broken down boxer with nothing going for him. He’s washed up, broke and in debt to a few unsavory characters. He makes his money driving around the country with his robot Ambush, fighting it against bulls or whatever he can to make a quick buck. But Charlie is impulsive and likes to go for big money instead of an easy payday, which has a tendency not to work out for him.
Kenton finds out that his ex-girlfriend has died, leaving the 11-year-old son they had together an orphan. Charlie isn’t interested in being a father, but when he finds out his girlfriend’s sister is married to a rich man (who wears an ascot just so you know how rich and uptight he is), Kenton decides to use the kid to leverage $100,000 from the couple. He decides to take his son Max (Dakota Goyo) for the summer with the intention of signing him over and collecting his money once they get back from their European vacation.
Scrounging for spare parts in a junk yard, Max discovers a generation two sparring bot that he decides to keep. Charlie tries to explain that the robot is too small and outdated to make it in the fight game, but Max is just too precocious and optimistic to listen. He cleans the robot up and gets it ready to fight and – lo and behold – the thing can hold its own in the ring. Thanks to it’s “shadow function” (which allows it to mimic the motions of any human), Charlie is able to use his boxing skills to train Atom the robot to be a fierce competitor. Underdog, rags to riches, father-son bonding shenanigans ensue.
The film borrows heavily from other boxing films and sports movies, most unapologetically from Rocky and Over the Top. Finding a way to make an emotionless robot an underdog is no easy feat, but making Atom a training bot and giving him a cute face helps considerably. There’s something charming and quirky and Atom, which helps sell the ridiculous premise. And, of course, there’s an evil, unstoppable champion robot named Zeus out there who is unbeaten in the ring, giving little Atom a Goliath to his David.
It’s ridiculous, but the reason the film works is because of Hugh Jackman. Jackman is so charismatic and fun to watch on screen and he plays the role of Charlie so earnestly that he sells you on everything else. Even when Charlie is being a complete bastard – trying to sell his son for quick cash or stealing parts from a junkyard – he does it in a way that gets you smiling. Like he did so effortlessly in the role of Wolverine, Jackman has once again created a lovable anti-hero in Kenton.
The supporting cast is also solid. Goyo does a fine job as Max and is quite entertaining in several scenes where he gets the robot to mimic his dance moves. Kevin Durand, who excels at playing completely unlikable villains, plays Ricky, a promoter who wants the money back that Charlie owes him and will do what he has to to get it. Anthony Mackie is great as Finn, another promoter who provides Charlie’s robots with fights. And Evangeline Lilly holds her own as Bailey Tallet, the surprisingly “not a wet blanket” love interest for Charlie. (Lost fans will be shocked to discover that even with robots on the loose and Durand playing a villain, Lilly is never once captured and held hostage in the film.)
The film never takes itself too seriously and though it’s overly formulaic, it’s a formula that works. At the screening I attended, audience members were cheering and clapping during the big fight scenes. The fight scenes themselves are a lot of fun to watch as well. The CGI for the robots is great and the scenes are shot and paced quite well. The locales that these fights take place, particularly for the underground fights Charlie and Max first enter Atom into, are aesthetically interesting as well. There’s a fight outdoors in a place called The Zoo and a really cool night-time fight that takes place in an empty field lit up by a circle of cars with their headlights turned on.
So if you are in the mood for a cheesy, ridiculous film that features robots squaring off against each other, then this may be the film for you. If you are in the mood for a movie that actually features this line of dialogue: “Kenton must have hardwired this bot with a will to go on,” then check out Real Steel. It’s everything you want in an underdog, father-son bonding, robot boxing film.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.