Real Steel, 2011.
Directed by Shawn Levy.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo, Anthony Mackie, Hope Davis and Kevin Durand.
In the not too distant future – where robot boxing has superseded human boxing/MMA – a struggling robot fight coach discovers that he has an 11-year-old son who wants to know his father and a potential champion in a discarded robot named Atom.
Real Steel is generic, it’s clichéd, it’s formulaic but most importantly it works. Real Steel takes the premise of the once-titanic children’s toy – Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots – and brings it to life. Unlike something like The Transformers, there wasn’t an established ‘story’ with ‘Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots’ – other than the obvious. So without any qualms about being anything else, we’re presented with a great underdog story mashed with a reunion story of an estranged father and son and the whimsical childhood fantasy of “how cool would it be if Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots were REAL?’
Jackman plays down on his luck former boxer/robot fight coach Charlie, who blackmails his former spouse’s sister for the rights to adopt his estranged son in the wake of her death- in order for him to finance his Robot fight coaching career. With that kind of CV you’d expect that he’s an unlikeable creep – but Jackman’s charm and personality shines through. Max played by Dakota Goyo is a brash and stubborn 9 year old who happens to be a wunderkind with Robo-technology. He’s an aspirational kid for the kids in the audience – assertive beyond his years, talking up his robots fighting prowess at every turn. Before I get to Atom, Goyo’s Max (because of his look) does have shades of Jake Lloyd’s “[M]Anakin Skywalker,” which is really tough in a few wince-worthy moments but the film is strong enough to overcome that.
The rest of the characters portrayed don’t really get the screen time to offer any real substance because the focus of the film is on the relationship between Max and Charlie. Bailey (Lilley) does give some humanity and back-story to how Charlie arrived at the Charlie in the film, while portraying the ‘Adrian!’-esque love interest but the other peripheral characters feel like 2D caricatures for the sake of the core relationship.
Now onto the titular robot, Atom, who is an interesting and ambiguous robot. He’s an early model, with long since forgotten functions – he’s shaped more like a metallic boxer that his modern counterparts with epic mech warrior proportions. There are some slight and subtle moments where Max (Goyo) appears convinced that he’s found something more with Atom than a regular robot. His implied ‘difference’ is the potential that he’s got some kind of AI. However I will concede that the whispers/hints from Atom that he’s got A.I could just be my fear of Skynet talking; but nevertheless it’s a nice added dimension in the interaction between the two, especially when they’re alone.
And finally, it would be remiss of me to not talk about director Shawn Levy, who does an accomplished job of contrasting the futuristic fighting arena engulfed in technology with the beautiful and iconic American countryside. The sunset hues of the landscape are idealistic and natural, compared to the fluorescent led of the fight arenas really showcase the film’s nostalgic impression of the future. The robo-fighting action in Real Steel does not feel stale like Transformers, where at times you feel like you’re watching a cut scene from a really expensive video game. The action is exciting because you’re seeing the human interaction determining the robot’s fate. The human robot interaction makes it engaging and interesting and has you rooting for Atom’s underdog fighting bot throughout.
Does Real Steel have flaws? Yes, but this is just the kind of entertaining escapist fare that let’s you look over the basic problems with the script/acting/story and just enjoy feeling like an 11 year old controlling awesome fighting bots. And further I feel that it’s the logical transition for a competitive gamer to want have a high stakes competition against other gamers at their favourite game. Has anyone heard the following? “Who wants to bet money on this game of COD: Black Ops or Madden or Gears of War?”
Real Steel is real fun – get your bot in the ring!
Blake Howard is a writer/site director/podcaster at the castleco-op.com.