4 out of 5 stars
It’s always a draw to root for the underdog, which is the central premise of Real Steel, but moreover, the film itself is the scrappy fighter who scores a knockout against all odds.
You would be hard pressed to find a concept more ridiculous than Real Steel’s. A movie based entirely about CGI robot boxing immediately brings to mind a childhood toy (Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots), and not one that in any way would inspire a good film. The promotional posters and trailers did little to make it seem like this might somehow be a good idea, and so it’s easy to head into Real Steel with low or no expectations.
One of the best feelings in the world when going to a movie is to end up being surprised. Movies we expect to be good either are, and we’re satisfied, or they’re not, and we’re bummed, but a movie you think is going to be terrible? It’s a fantastic moment when you figure out that this seemingly awful film you’re watching is actually…good, and it’s hard to think of a more potent example of such a phenomenon than Real Steel.
He may look like a video game enemy who dies in one hit, but he’s a bit tougher than that.
The world of the future doesn’t look so different than now, only phones are thinner and robots are boxing. The official plot synopsis says that human boxing has been outlawed due to violence, but the film disagrees. Rather it’s changed its story to say that the money just went elsewhere, and crowds weren’t entertained by human-on-human fights anymore, as they couldn’t get the “true” violence they wanted to see, as gladiator death matches are a bit post-apocalyptic for this soon on the calendar. Instead, now in place of human combatants, these robots are pummeled, dismembered and beheaded to the roar of the crowd.
The film follows an ex-human boxer turned robot trainer, Charlie (Hugh Jackman) who is saddled with a child, Max (Dakota Goyo), he never knew after his mother dies. The two have nothing to say to each other, but form a bond through clanging steel, as Charlie soon discovers robot whispering runs in the family.
After a few of his bots are destroyed in fights he had no business entering, Charlie humors Max by allowing him to train a discarded old sparring robot named Atom, who can take a punch, but can’t give one. Not yet at least, and so begins an underdog’s road to the top.
Sadly that robot’s name is NOT Leonidas.
The robots in the film are interesting, because they’re not actually autonomous or personable the way they are in most futuristic movies. This film is set barely a few years from now, so mobile robots with functional AI are still way off on the horizon. Atom has to be likable and anthropomorphic through only mimicking others’ movements, a process dubbed “shadowing.” Despite never making a single movement on his own, he still manages to have personality, even if it’s only that of his controllers reflected in him.
The underdog plot progresses in a way you might expect, as does the father/son bonding experience. There’s rarely a surprise to be found in the entire two hours, and most plot points can be spotted from a mile away. That said, the film handles its rather goofy subject matter extremely well, and even if you know what’s coming, there’s a reason this sort of formula works, regardless of if you replace humans with robots.
The film owes much to Hugh Jackman, who took a random movie about punching robots and ran as far as he could with it. Honestly, I think it’s one of his better performances, and without him, I’m picturing someone like Mark Wahlberg might have sunk this.
Bitch, you better bet on my robot. Look at that paint job! He can’t lose.
Also deserving of credit is little Dakota Goyo, who you’d think is emerging from obscurity, but at age 12 already has almost 20 IMDB credits to his name. He’s like a less annoying Anakin Skywalker, and though his frequent whining should be grating, more often than not he’s quite likable, particularly when he’s interacting with his robot fighter. There’s just something touching about a boy and his robot, ask The Iron Giant.
Real Steel is tangible proof in the power of cinema. It shows that you can take any idea, no matter how ridiculous it sounds, and through good writing, acting and direction, make a great film out of it. Give it a chance and I have a feeling it will surprise you.
4 out of 5 stars