In the year 2020, as crowds looked for bigger thrills, humans were replaced by specialist robots in the sport of boxing. A once great fighter, Charlie Kenton now buys scrap robots and puts them in illegal street fights to try and win money and pay off his debtors. One day, Charlie finds out his ex-girlfriend has died, and thus his son Max is placed in his custody for the summer. Together they fight robots and go searching for in junkyards for spare parts. One night, whilst junk hunting, Max falls over a ledge, but is saved by an overhanging robot arm. Max uncovers Atom, an obsolete sparring robot, and becomes determined that he can take him home and make him a prize fighter, despite Charlie’s objections...
Real Steel is somewhat of an oddity in today’s film market, in that it’s not a remake or a reboot or a sequel to anything. Instead, this is a 2 hour family-orientated film based upon both a short story from 1956, as well as the subsequent episode of The Twilight Zone written by the same author. Add to that it’s been brought to life by the director of Night at the Museum 1&2 and Cheaper by the Dozen, as well as starring one of world’s most recognisable actors and Real Steel is certainly an intriguing proposition. So does it hit its mark? Sometimes, but it’s extremely hit and miss.
There are as many positives as there are negatives about this film. On one hand, Real Steel is a well made Hollywood film with plenty of drama and action to keep the momentum going for its 2 hour duration, and there’s a classic Hollywood father and son plotline running through the middle of a story about fighting robots. But then, it’s the classic father and son plotline which adds to much schmaltz to the proceedings and somewhat burdens the film and overcomplicates what is a very simple premise, not helped by the fact that the robot plotline is something we’ve seen in countless sports movies for decades now. I was fairly surprised by this film, I didn’t think it would impress me as much as it did, but just as much as I’m willing to praise Real Steel, I need to balance things and say that at times, it was uninteresting, predictable, clichéd and almost boring.
Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, the former boxer turned robot controller out to make a quick buck. His character is a composite of various underdog sports films protagonists, combined with a composite of various unlikely fathers who suddenly find themselves with child, there’s nothing new in this character, but the development is done well and the transformation of Jackman’s character is something which really shines for the film and becomes a key piece of what works in this. Dakota Goyo plays his son Max, and does so with gusto and bravado, putting in a real adult performance whilst retaining the naivety of youth and inexperience in the big, adult world of robot boxing. Evangeline Lilly is nothing more than background and is extremely replaceable as the female lead and Jackman’s love interest. A good solid supporting cast back up the lead performances well.
In my mind, there’s some similarities here between this and Super 8, and thus all those Spielberg family film, as the sci-fi inspired outside event becomes the catalyst for bringing together an estranged father and son. There are certainly touches of Spielberg about it, but it isn’t done in Real Steel with the same kind of humanity and smart, realistic dialogue that is seen in Spielberg’s work. Whether it’s because of the ludicrous premise of fighting robots I’m not sure. Speaking of which, seeing a larger than life, CGI-created 21st century version of Rock’ Em Sock ‘Em Robots on a big screen is fascinating, and the robots do look very well done, the fighting realistic due to a combination of animatronics and mo-cap, and as is standard, the computer animation holds up well and does its part.
Having said all that though, Real Steel was as impressive as it is disappointing. It’s a great family film, and considering I went into this with low expectations, I was certainly pleasantly surprised. Having said all of that, I personally could not look past all the clichés and plot and character rehashes. I felt like I’d seen this film many times before in many different guises. The plot is predictable, more so than most films I’ve said that about in the last few months, and although the characters are strong, it’s because they’re old characters from old films. Frankly, Real Steel is Rocky with robots, with the upcoming fighter story and the change in attitude in the protagonist and the development of a relationship (only this time between a father and son rather than a husband and wife). Real Steel is, for lack of a better word... Robotcky. But is that a problem? Well, yes, because Real Steel does everything that Rocky does, but Rocky did it first, and Rocky did it better.