Real Steel (United States, 2011)

October 05, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Real Steel Poster

Real Steel, despite being dubbed the "Rock-em/Sock-em Robot movie," seeks to achieve more than such a limiting nickname might imply. A fusion of three popular genres - the father/son relationship movie, the boy-and-his-dog movie, and the sports movie - Real Steel crams a lot into its two hour running time. There's sentiment and manipulation, impressive special effects work, and some electric robot boxing sequences. Although the film, directed by A Night at the Museum's Shawn Levy, starts out slowly and meanders during the needlessly long first hour, it hits its stride once the robots start pounding on each other in earnest. By the time the two hour running length has expired, it's safe to say that Real Steel comes across as a legitimate crowd-pleaser.

The measure of a successful sports movie is how passionately the audience gets behind the protagonist. If viewers are on their feet cheering, the director has found the sweet spot. If they're sitting on their hands, he has missed the target. Real Steel achieves the former, perhaps because the father/son relationship, no matter how riddled with clichés it may be, adds an emotional layer to what happens during the climactic ring confrontation between David and Goliath.

Although Real Steel takes place in the future, the World of Tomorrow doesn't look much different from the World of Today, except that there are robots wandering around. The year isn't explicitly revealed, but clues point to it being in the 2020s. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), once a promising fighter, has been out of a job for years since prize fighting between humans was outlawed. Now, only robots are allowed in the ring. Charlie is a small-time drifter/promoter who controls a rusty, broken-down machine that can win against second-rate opponents. When Charlie, who is in debt to at least three people, pushes his robot too far, he ends up with nothing more than a pile of scrap metal. To make money, he needs another fighter. To get another fighter, he needs money. Catch-22. Until his 11-year old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), enters the picture.

Charlie abandoned Max as a baby, but the kid's mother has died intestate and that makes Charlie his legal guardian. The last thing Charlie needs is to be saddled with a son, and Max's aunt, Debra (Hope Davis), wants to raise the boy. Charlie makes a proposition to Debra's rich husband, Marvin (James Rebhorn): For $100,000, he'll sell away his legal guardianship rights. Marvin agrees, but only under the condition that Charlie babysits Max for the summer so he and Debra can take a long-planned vacation in Italy. The deal is struck and Charlie gets the cash to buy a new robot. But he also has a new, unplanned-for sidekick.

The story doesn't really get started until Max finds his own robot, Atom, under a slagheap in a junkyard. After some tinkering by Charlie's longtime friend and would-be love interest, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), Atom comes to life. But he's old, small, and frail. He becomes Max's best friend and the boy badgers Charlie into getting Atom a fight. Much to Charlie's surprise, Atom wins his first encounter, then keeps winning. In between bouts, Max teaches Atom new moves and many viewers will expect to hear "Gonna Fly Now." The song may not be there but the attitude and approach are. Real Steel turns into Rocky the Robot. Too bad Atom doesn't have a voice - it could have been provided by Sylvester Stallone.

Real Steel works really hard - too hard, in fact - to win over viewers. Especially early, it lathers the sentiment on thickly. It doesn't just stack the deck, it stacks several of them. Yet, because there's so much energy in the robot bouts, it all works. The cynic in me may have been aware of every act of crass manipulation, but I was still rooting for Atom during the movie's waning rounds. Real Steel was not made by a master craftsman but by someone who understands how to engage an audience and who gives them precisely what they want. Shawn Levy is P.T. Barnum with the big screen as his big top.

As Charlie, Hugh Jackman does what Hugh Jackman does best - takes a handsome jerk and releases the wellspring of humanity locked within. He's Han Solo without the space opera accoutrements. He's in it for the reward, until he gets to know Max. Dakota Goyo's performance as Charlie's stubborn offspring reminded me of Edward Furlong in Terminator 2 - a little bratty but not precious or cute. Importantly, Max never comes across as a victim. Evangeline Lilly fans will be less than appreciative of the actresses' screen time and character arc (or lack thereof). Bailey is underdeveloped and ends up being Charlie's background love interest. Her entire role is one of many clichés recycled by Real Steel.

The robot design, which is effective, is intended more for aesthetics than functionality. Personality is conveyed through form. Atom, the underdog, looks clunky and old-fashioned, bearing a passing resemblance to a 1960s-era Cyberman from Doctor Who. Zeus, the god-like boxing champion, is sleek and imposing, something Michael Bay would appreciate. The effects work used to bring the robots to life is seamless. By mixing animatronics and motion capture CGI, the behind-the-scenes crew gives us electromechanical creatures that believably inhabit a mostly-human world.

The "inspiration" for the movie is the 1956 short story "Steel" by Richard Matheson, which has already been dramatized as a Twilight Zone episode. The core of Matheson's tale - about robots replacing humans as boxers - is the only element to remain intact. It's compelling enough, however, to provide freshness to the formulas grafted onto it. The question of android sentience is not addressed, although it is briefly hinted at. To go down that path would demand a more morally complex tale than what the filmmakers want. Real Steel works as a feel-good movie because it plays the right chords. There's genuine excitement in the boxing matches (especially when the rope-a-dope comes into play) and Levy, for all his previous directorial missteps (Cheaper by the Dozen, The Pink Panther), launches a climax that is 15 minutes of pure spectacle. Real Steel isn't great art, but it represents enjoyable entertainment, and is crafted with sufficient skill that one can watch it guilt-free.

Real Steel (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 2011-10-07
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1