Who would've ever thought that a movie about giant robot boxers could have real heart and soul? A rousing underbot sports drama fueled by genuine human emotion, Real Steel possesses the power to get audiences cheering not because of the enormous sci-fi spectacle, but because it places equal (if not greater) value on the father-son relationship behind it. With an engaging performance by young star Dakota Goyo and a screenplay that doesn't trivialize the adult drama (not to mention some fun and energetic fight scenes), it's the kind of movie that kids can connect with and parents will be able to enjoy, too.
Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) was a true contender just as the sport of boxing was changed forever. Now, instead of humans duking it out for the masses, huge, powerful steel robots trade blows in the ring. As a result, former gladiator Charlie has been forced into the role of a two-bit promoter, piecing together cut-rate fighting bots from scrap metal as he makes the rounds on the underground boxing circuit. Just when it seems that Charlie has sunken to the nadir of his career, his estranged 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo) offers him the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at a comeback by constructing and training a robot champion. Now, the stakes are higher than ever before, and Charlie is about to get a second chance at leaving an indelible mark on the sport he once dedicated his life to.
Real Steel is based on a Richard Matheson short story from 1956, which was later adapted into an episode of The Twilight Zone. Since Matheson has always shown a unique flair for condensing compelling drama and deeply humanistic themes down to their core elements, it would seem unlikely that the concept could work when expanded to feature length. But in the case of Real Steel, screenwriter John Gatins has managed the impressive feat of sweetening the themes laid out by the original author without making them too syrupy or stretching them to their breaking point. And by downplaying the science-fiction elements of the plot early on, he affords viewers the opportunity to relate to the flesh-and-blood characters before metal meets metal and sparks begin to fly. It's a smart move that requires a certain amount of trust in the audience, and it pays off handsomely once the crucial components of the story have been established. But that doesn't mean there's no action early on; a thrilling fight in the opening scenes shows viewers something they definitely haven't seen before, and we're treated to numerous rounds of robot brawling in various colorful settings as the father and son steadily work their way up from the underground.
Director Shawn Levy, meanwhile, keeps the action flowing smoothly enough that even the occasional superfluous scene doesn't stall the pacing, and he coaxes a nicely nuanced performance out of Goyo. Max is written with enough sass and attitude that he could have come across as simply obnoxious, but in the hands of Goyo, Max's emerging swagger is well-earned; he's just a boy who's always dreamed of connecting with the once-mighty father who previously abandoned him, and who jumps at the chance to do so when the opportunity arises. Jackman, meanwhile, does a commendable job of getting us to root for a character initially so aloof that he's willing to sell his kid to pay for a machine, but who gradually realizes that no steel creation could ever substitute for his own child. And while Evangeline Lilly makes for a worthwhile love interest and Kevin Durant a truly loathsome villain, the most-impressive supporting character may be Atom, the fighting robot himself. Though Atom's face is little more than a pair of unblinking ovals shrouded by metal mesh, the more Charlie begins to believe in him, the more human he seems to become. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Atom appears entirely tangible when standing next to his human counterparts, but as Charlie's faith in him grows, the audience also begins to project their optimism onto him as well, and that's what ultimately helps to make him more than a soulless CGI creation. Michael Bay, take note: This is how you make a robot recognizably human.
Perhaps the weakest link in the movie is the one that we never actually see. Danny Elfman's maudlin score is just about as obvious and uninspired as any ever recorded. His distinctive style a distant memory, Elfman seems to have completely abandoned any effort to be original and interesting. His score for Real Steel is almost depressing in its slavish traditionalism, and it feels as if it's trying to force-feed us emotion that already exists perfectly well in the screenplay.
Nevertheless, with its full-metal punch of genuine human sentiment, Real Steel KOs the big-budget Hollywood bravado that keeps us on the ropes all summer and always seems to leave us wanting more. So if the person sitting next to you starts to applaud during the final fight, don't be surprised -- it's a perfectly anthropomorphic response.
Real Steel on AllMovie
Real Steel (2011)