Film review by: Witney Seibold
“Real Steel” is unreasonably fun. Director Shawn Levy, who has previously only directed moneymaking family trifles like “Night at the Museum,” “Date Night,” and the remakes of “The Pink Panther,” and “Cheaper by the Dozen,” has finally struck on a solid, satisfying, mainstream style that, yes, is more evocative of Steven Spielberg than of his previous films. That Spielberg produced “Real Steel” may have a lot to do with that. But this goofy tale of battling robots is energetic and satisfying, and actually something of a delight. Nine-year-old boys will adore this movie. My own inner 9-year-old was squealing with delight. Indeed, upon exiting my screening, I overheard a young boy ranting to his mother. “Those robots were BIG!” He said “I mean, they were like REALLY BIG!” This film, even more than “Super 8,” will be immensely important to a generation of kids.
“Real Steel,” based on a short story by Richard Matheson (which was, I’m guessing, more thoughtful that this film), follows Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) a sanitized grizzled loner, once a champion boxer, now an expert a remote-controlled robot fights. This film takes place in a near future when boxing and martial arts have been supplanted by high-profile, multi-million-dollar robot fights, where bots with names like Noisy Boy and Midas wail on each other with gigantic robots fists. The robots are human-shaped, and are operated either by remote control, voice command, or motion-capture. Charlie lives on the outside of this wild world of outsized Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, deep in debt to a Good Ol’ Boy (Kevin Durand), and barely staying in the good graces of his would-be love interest (Evangeline Lilly). When Charlie extorts his estranged 11-year-old son Max (the unfortunately named Dakota Goyo) away from his more loving parent figures (as is fitting for a Spielberg-related film, the boy’s mother is dead), he, despite his usual shallow greed, begins to (predictably) become a more warm-hearted individual. Max and Charlie find themselves in possession of a sparring robot they nickname Atom, which, like Rocky before him, doesn’t have a lot of power, but can sure take a beating. Max tries operating Atom at first, but it’s not long before Charlie is doing all the fighting, until the last battle, when Charlie is enacting his old boxing moves outside of the ring, remotely operating Atom to victory.
The way this film kind of emulates “Rocky” is uncanny. There are all the usual beats for a sports movie, the moments of doubt, the final fall, and the last-ditch, devil-take-it attempt at redemption. There is even an Apollo-Creed-like team of villainous blowhards in the form of the robo-world’s champion.
There are times when, as an adult, you’ll be catching yourself scoffing at the ridiculousness of the imagery. Robots battles, huh? But, thanks to the film’s light tone, surprisingly good direction, engaging special effects, and loudly earnest score (from an increasingly out-of-character Danny Elfman), you’ll find yourself cheering anyway. The film’ ending is as inspiring as any sport movie you’ll see. The story, which was old when boxing movies did it in the 1930s, feels less like tires cliché, and more like a comforting blanket to wrap yourself in. Even the ending is ripped off from another famous boxing movie. But ti feels like a warm cup of cocoa, and not a blatant copy.
All that said, I’d like to point out something kind of chilling about “Real Steel” which bothers me more the more I think about it.
At the film’s end, Max, the young boy, is hoisted up as the champion of the robot fighting league (and I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say that he wins in the end). Max, mind you, while being the one to have found his robot, and being the one who initially had the idea to train Atom, does little in the actual fighting arenas. He’s good at dancing with his robot to get the crowd riled up, and he does know a thing or two about robot engineering, but when it comes to the actual fights, he hands off the robot duties to Charlie. Charlie, in turn, doesn’t really do any fighting of his own, but entrusts all the fighting duties to a pre-programmed machine. The robots do all the heavy lifting in this world, so it’s hard to feel bad for a guy who can’t control his ‘bot that well. Is this what sport championship has become to kids? Charlie was once a boxer, but rather that actually getting in a real boxing match, where he would have to actually take physical punishment, and strain his body, he controls a video game avatar. Charlie is essentially really good at shadowboxing. And then it’s Max who ultimately takes the credit. Kids, the films seems to say, don’t want to do the hard work of actually learning a skill and physically exerting themselves, but want the credit anyway. “Real Steel” gives them that fantasy. Indeed, it’s lets their dads have that fantasy for them. We’re two avatars removed from actual sport at this point. “Real Steel” takes a chilling peek into the future, when the current generation of video game players are aging out, and video game tactics have officially and organically replaced all semblance of actual sporting attitudes or athleticism. Being a real athlete is gay. Giant robots is where the action is.
Had the characters been overweight and out-of-shape, this facet of the film may have been more obvious. Imagine that, instead of the nondescript child actor they hired, they got a pasty fat kid with dubious social skills, but good robot skills. And instead of Hugh Jackman, they got an actually chubby ex-athlete. I think the sport-movie themes of re-winning a championship would have been stronger, and the comment that robots are doing our work for us (perhaps more than they should) would have made for a nice ironic undercurrent.
But this is not a movie with that much on its robot mind. This is a film that is all about the fighting, the winning, the bland reconciliation, and, of course, the heaps and heaps of fun produced. This is a movie that will leave you smiling no matter what. For however silly it may be, it works well. And that, in itself, is a triumph.