A future-set story where robot boxing is a popular sport and a struggling promoter (Hugh Jackman) thinks he's found a champion in a discarded robot. During his hopeful rise to the top, he also discovers he has an 11-year-old son (Dakota Goya) who wants to know his father.
A 'Robo-Rocky’-like mash-up full of 'rock-'em/sock-'em’ action, Shawn Levy’s Real Steel reimagines the father/son boxing melodrama The Champ (1931, 1979) for the gamer generation... and it damn near pulls it off.
Proving just how important good ol’ fashioned movie star charm really is, Hugh Jackman’s Charlie Kenton is his best role in some time. His turn as an on-the-slide ex-pugilist who now relies on past-their-prime fighting machines to win him a few bucks here and there, draws upon Jackman’s innate likability; the actor’s full commitment to both character and plot convention will be enough for (most) audiences to buy into the premise and subsequent sentimentality. He shares a good rapport with Dakota Goya, precociously natural as long-lost son Max, and Evangeline Lilly, as the archetypal gym owner and overly-tolerant friend of our hero.
Most modern critics are pre-programmed to come down heavy on this kind of saccharine-infused Hollywood by-product. And if Real Steel catches you in the wrong mindset, you’ll probably agree with those who nail this as a shamelessly manipulative, ultra-commercial corporate grab for family bucks and promotional tie-in opportunities. Every element is in there to inspire the cynic in us all: a training montage set to pumping rock track; the lightning-bolt flash of a camera bulb at the point of a punch’s impact (apparently, our future selves can build fighting robots but not flashless cameras); rousing underdog victories against, in this case, mohawked hillbillies staging illegal death-matches; and a vast range of robot designs that will have under 10s ripping at the wrapping paper before sunrise come December 25.
The film also adheres, heavy-handedly, to the 'flyover-state’ view of the world. Opening on vast tracts of wheat and corn swaying in the glow of early evening, Levy and scripter John Gatins (Hardball, Coach Carter) lay Midwest dustbowl imagery on like molasses on cornbread, with everything from small town carnivals, rodeo contests (or the near-future Robo-boxing equivalent), the straw-chewin’ hero and the fancy pants 'big smoke’ folk (Hope Lange, James Rebhorn). That’s all harmless enough, but the film mines some arguably xenophobic Tea Party territory with its portrayal of villainy: a black mechanical warrior named Zeus, the tool of gross ethnic stereotypes Farra Lemkova (Olga Fonda, exuding the chilliest Eastern European visage since Dolph Lundgren’s 'Drago’ in Rocky IV) and the inscrutable Asian, Tak Mashido (a cartoonishly-vile Karl Yune).
But audiences for a movie about boxing robots will probably be more intent on witnessing metal-on-metal mayhem than on debating the media’s portrayal of non-Western ethnicity. In this regard, Real Steel is the real deal. (Sorry.) All the 'bots are intricately designed and take on well-defined personalities, especially 'ATOM’, the heroic 'little-engine-that-could’ at the heart of the story; the visual effects work of Digital Domain (the company who breathed life into ATOM’s big brothers, the 'Transformers’) is exemplary.
Levy ups the drama at the expense of the laughs but generally brings the same frantic, family-friendly elements to this film, which won over audiences with his past works, A Night at the Museum (2006) and The Pink Panther (2006). He has a lock on big, loud, dumb Hollywood fun and Real Steel is the latest guilty pleasure from his cannon. In the boxing-robot oeuvre, it's probably as good as it’s going to get.