If you’ve seen the trailer of Real Steel, you’ve pretty much seen the whole movie because there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen before. Derivative of essentially every underdog sports movie from Rocky to The Fighter and blockbusters like Transformers and I, Robot, this is the definition of the sleek, conveyor belt-assembled product that gets rolled out of the Hollywood factory system every year, meaning it’s extraordinarily silly, bathed in schmaltz, overly-manipulative and almost as predictable as a typical Adam Sandler movie. Moreover, the product placements are embarrassingly annoying and Danny Elfman’s saccharine score is as subtle as a high-five… to the face… with a chair.
Now, here’s the cinch: In spite of all of its blatant and abhorring flaws, I actually enjoyed the flick! No, I swear I’m not making this up. While it’s never going to be a Moneyball or Drive or The Help, Real Steel is a surprisingly fun and broad family entertainer that works primarily on the strengths of a couple of factors: The spectacularly choreographed robot fight scenes (which I expected to be good considering it’s only a movie about giant freaking robots!), and the chemistry between Hugh Jackman and a scene stealing 11-year-old named Dakota Goyo.
Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a former middleweight title contender who became a low-level robot boxing promoter after boxing is banned in favor of robot boxing. Broke, ridiculously in debt to scumbags (played exceedingly well by Kevin Durand and Anthony Mackie) and desperate for cash, Charlie is the type of arrogant nitwit you’d find populating grimy state fairs and underground warehouses which is where a lot of Real Steel is set. Unexpectedly saddled with his estranged son Max (Goyo), who he gets temporary custody of after the unexplained death of the boy’s mother, the duo hit the seedy underground robot boxing circuit with poor results until Max finds a broken old robot named Atom in a junkyard. Though Charlie is dismissive of the “sparring robot” at first, the robot’s unexpected tenacity and speed surprises him during a key fight at a zoo (now havens for underground robot fights). With newly instilled faith, the duo, with help from Charlie’s friend and former flame Bailey (the stunning Evangeline Lilly), trains Atom for small time fights to fill their pockets until the big leagues start calling.
Like I stated earlier, there’s nothing about this premise you haven’t seen before. Deadbeat dad gets taught a lesson in morals by a precocious, wide-eyed cute kid who reminds him of his dead mother; Son finally gets the father figure he needs; Father-son beat the odds in a classic rags-to-riches underdog story etc., etc. It’s all been played out a hundred times before in better (and worse) movies. It’s cliché on top of cliché but it works because of the dynamo chemistry between Jackman and Goyo. It’s so natural you’d think they’ve worked together for years. Director Shawn Levy (who also directed other broad entertainers like Date Night and Night at the Museum) does the film justice by keeping the focus on this father-son element and making the picture as family-friendly as possible. Though my knee-jerk reaction after the film was that it could have benefitted from more grit (since that’s the hip thing these days), in hindsight, I believe a grittier mood would have soiled the film considerably. I mean, this is a fighting robots movie after all!
Goyo, who had a bit role in this summer’s Thor playing the younger version of the God of Thunder, truly gets his breakthrough in this one. Though he overacts in a scene or two, for the majority of the role, he’s near perfect as the robot-obsessed Max. You get the feeling that this is a real, lived-in character – something I can’t say for many characters created by child actors. Sadly, I can’t say the same for Jackman because this isn’t anything close to his most accomplished work. In fact, he’s bland. I get the feeling that he may not have been able to find a perfect balance between the likable and unlikable aspects of his character’s personality. There was never a moment in the film where I cared about wanting to see his character succeed – which is usually a big no-no for a protagonist. I think if Jackman was given more to do with the role, Real Steel could have been something much better but as charismatic as he is while interacting with the kid, his performance was severely lacking.
Also severely lacking is Danny Elfman’s intrusive string score which plays like an emotional cue over every scene in the film, hammering into my head saying, “Look, this is the moment where you’re supposed to feel sad… very sad!” and “this is when you’re supposed to feel optimistic for Charlie! Go Charlie!” The goal of a film score is to assist the scene, not dictate it completely! Sometimes less is more but Elfman apparently didn’t get the memo. His score drowns the film in faux sentimentality and I cringed every time it took center stage on the soundtrack (which seemed to be all the damn time!). All those awful movies with Tim Burton in the last couple of years may have rotted his style.
But let’s face it, in the end, the general appeal of this film is the robots and in that department, Real Steel soars! Choreographed by boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard, the fight sequences are thrilling, visceral and simply, fun. Maybe it’s because they were created using a combination of CGI and on-set models but it greatly helps that for once, the robots are distinguishable from each other unlike the monstrosities in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Adding to the mood of these fight scenes are the locations of the fights which are mostly set in underground garages, road rallies, zoos and other shady places. So if you want your Rock’em Sock’em robots, you’re going to get them. Just beware that this is first and foremost, a crowd-pleasing family flick.
Real Steel is manipulative, derivative, drenched in sentimentality, brimming with clichés and silly but despite those flaws, it’s an enjoyable yarn that meshes a familiar but engaging father-son story with the classic underdog plot. The action is top-notch, the production values are ace and though it’s anything but a great film, it kept me satisfied. That’s all I can ask for from a movie about Rock’em Sock’em robots.