Title: Real Steel
Directed By: Shawn Levy
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand, Hope Davis, James Rebhorn, Karl Yune, Olga Fonda
This is a movie about futuristic robot boxing that’s eager to please the widest audience possible. As long as you don’t walk into Real Steel with your fingers crossed for something that feels as real and gritty as, let’s say The Fighter or Warrior, it’s impossible not to enjoy it.
Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a former boxer turned robot fighter. In the near future, when human boxing isn’t brutal enough for spectators, the sport displaces those fighters with massive and ruthless robots, offering unrelenting destruction. When Charlie’s ex passes away, leaving their son, Max (Dakota Goyo), homeless, Charlie takes advantage of his aunt’s (Hope Davis) desperation to adopt him and gets her wealthy husband (James Rebhorn) to give him a hefty chunk of cash in exchange for Max. The only catch is that Charlie has to keep an eye on Max himself until they return from a European excursion at the end of the summer.
Charlie uses the money to buy a new robot, Noisy Boy, but his desperation to make the big bucks causes him to make a hasty decision that results in Noisy Boy’s destruction. With no money, Charlie has no choice but to visit a scrap yard to find the parts to build a new fighter. However, while there, Max spots something better, Atom. Atom’s an old sparring bot, making him far less capable in the ring, but Max insists that together, they can turn him into a champion.
Are you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside yet? Even if that slight hint at the father-son bonding in Real Steel didn’t get at your heart, seeing the relationship come to life on the big screen most certainly will. Quite a bit of promotional attention has been given to the big bots and appropriately so, but what makes the feature a worthwhile experience is that it’s not just a mindless game of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots come to life; there’s quite a bit of heart here, too – cheesy, cliché, sports movie type of heart, but it is heart.
Much of that comes from our leading men. Not only do both Jackman and Goyo give this film their all, but they share a particularly notable degree of chemistry. Both Charlie and Max are formulaic – Jackman taking Charlie’s rough and tough attitude to the max and Goyo making Max an extreme know-it-all for his age – but in terms of the tone of the film, it works quite well.
As for supporting characters, the only two that make much of an impact are Anthony Mackie’s Finn and Kevin Durand’s Ricky, simply because they’re the most fun to watch. Finn is the head of the underground boxing ring, Crash Palace, and Mackie appears to be having a blast playing a showman. Similarly, Ricky runs the rodeo that demolishes one of Charlie’s bots and, on top of being a rowdy ringleader, Ricky rocks a multifaceted attitude.
Evangeline Lilly is rather flat as Bailey Tallet, the owner of a boxing gym (that’s oddly perpetually empty) and Charlie’s love interest. She’s clearly there to soften Charlie and succeeds in that sense, but that’s about it. The same goes for Olga Fonda and Karl Yune as Farra Lemkova and Tak Mashido, the minds behind the ultimate boxing robot, Zeus. They’ve got “evil villain” written all over them courtesy of their stark getups, his cocky attitude and her Russian accent.
The plot itself doesn’t escape the truisms either. Real Steel is swimming in them. Sure it’s nice to get something a bit more innovative and fresh, but what makes the use and reuse technique here work is that director Shawn Levy is well aware of the fact that he’s using the typical underdog sports movie model and embraces it.
However, that’s not to say that Levy doesn’t give the film some flair. These are battling robots here; how can you not get creative? Technically, Levy turns up the originality big time. He’s certainly got a pension for magic hour/blue hour driving shots, which are strikingly beautiful, and has the ability to literally keep the film moving through his shot selection. We get a ton of tracking shots and a number of notable angles, all of which serve a purpose. Levy doesn’t just place the camera on the ground, aiming up at Max because it’s a pretty shot; it’s showing the kid’s got power.
Levy also knows how to emphasize production design, which, in Real Steel’s case, deserves to be highlighted as much as possible. The choice to go with practical robots during the non-combat scenes makes one heck of an impact both in terms of how Goyo interacts with Atom on screen and when it comes to the audience seeing these bots as real characters rather than mere CGI creations. By making them tangible for part of the film, the digitally rendered moments wind up looking far more authentic despite the somewhat far-fetched scenarios.
There are the films that move you and the ones that are geared toward fulfilling the industry’s goal of delivering entertainment. Real Steel certainly won’t change your life, but it will make due on the cash you drop for a fun night out.