It’s been done time and time again. From Rocky to Cinderella Man to The Fighter, the feel-good underdog fighting story has been portrayed in a variety of ways on the big screen.
Here comes Real Steel taking that same basic formula, setting itself in the near future and letting its fighting be done by not people, but robots. Testing the patience of even the most loyal of boxing film fans, this couldn’t possible work, could it? Actually, yeah—it kind of does.
In large part due to superbly crafted action sequences, along with Hugh Jackman’s awesomeness, Real Steel surprisingly has a successful one-two punch.
Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a former boxer who never quite made it big, and who is now a sleazy robot fighter. He’s not even particularly great doing the latter, as the movie opens to Charlie’s rusty old robot being obliterated by a bull at a circus. Charlie’s also a lousy guy to make a bet with. He seems to owe somebody something in every town he visits.
Then comes his estranged adolescent son Max (Dakota Goyo), whose parental situation is a mess once his mother suddenly dies. Charlie ends up with custody while we make way for the father and son unlikely bonding gimmick.
Max happening to be a student of the sport, they find common ground in robot boxing. Just as Charlie becomes completely down on his luck, Max discovers an old sparring bot that he immediately becomes attached to.
Enter the underdog. The thing is named Atom, and was built to absorb a lot of punches, but not fight back. Charlie’s a former fighter himself, though, and these robots can learn to mimic human movements. A little fixing up leads to some big wins for Atom. If you’ve ever seen an underdog movie, I have a feeling you know where this story leads and how it will end.
The grand successes here are the fight sequences. Each is unique to the others. All of them are wonderfully shot, both spatially and stylistically. Maybe it’s the wrestling fan in me, but I couldn’t help but become invested in the matches and inevitably find myself rooting for Atom.
More or less, the strength in the action made up for the shortcoming of the melodrama. Real Steel tries to evoke our emotions, to get the tears flowing, but it all sort of just falls flat.
Charlie and Max are so far apart from seeming like father and son that we’re never emotionally invested, the dialogue featured in heart-warming scenes borders on bizarre, and Lost star Evangeline Lilly (who plays Charlie’s long-time friend) hasn’t been doing anyone favors in her acting gigs since finding her way off the island. It at least tries to have a feel-good human storyline to parallel the feel-good robot storyline.
For a film packed with robot manslaughter, it was nice to see Director Shawn Levy and Writer John Gatins care enough to, at the very least, set a foundation for the audience to potentially warm up to the characters.
And despite knowing the ins and outs of this plot, Real Steel is entertaining enough to get by. Jackman further proves that he has enough good looks and charm to compensate for elite acting skills.
It doesn’t help that his character is unlikeable almost to the point of being offensive. Charlie only gains custody of his son for a few months by convincing his wealthy brother-in-law to pay him six figures while he’s on vacation. In turn, he’ll look after the kid.
It’s a wonder how Charlie manages to not get fed up with Max, let alone care enough to feed him daily. Yet out of all this, by the movie’s finale we find ourselves either forgiving Charlie or just forgetting the fact that he was such a horrible person roughly an hour ago.
Real Steel has a ridiculously long 127 minute runtime, yet it never noticeably drags on.
It’s a summer blockbuster that’s hitting theaters a month too late, but there is no need to punish it for that. It sets out to entertain, and if nothing else, it at least accomplishes that.
Critic’s Review: 3/5
Daniel Feingold can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.