Real Steel might have been one of the easiest movies to make fun of when it was first announced. Comments on our articles were filled with Rock em Sock em Robots and Battlebots jokes, and, to be honest, who could blame them? Get ready to eat those sardonic words, though, because Real Steel is a rousing success.
The movie is set in the year 2020, which strikes the perfect balance of the future and the present. The architecture isn't vastly different and people don't go swooping around in Jestons-like cars. It is still very much the world we live in, with a few little technological advances thrown in. Oh yeah, and there is this other thing called robot boxing, which steadily evolved into the biggest sport in the world, hands down. The evolution of robot boxing, though, lead to the devolution of actual human combat sports like boxing and mixed martial arts, which is where our lead character, Charlie Denton (Hugh Jackman) comes in. He makes his meager living through robot boxing, hauling these second-rate bots around to carnivals and underground fights, while still harboring a disdain for the sport which essentially put him out of a job. Charlie was an actual human boxer, although, with a 24-19 record, he wasn't exactly a contender. He's not too great at the robot boxing side either, racking up loads of debt owed to several different bookies, when life gets even more complicated. The son he abandoned at birth, Max (the wonderful Dakota Goyo), is thrust into his care, and even though the two share a stubborn semi-hatred for each other, they bond over robot boxing. When Max finds an older robot in the dump, he is convinced this bot named Atom can win against any opponent, even the mighty robots of World Robot Boxing (WRB).
Oftentimes, movies are described by simple hybrid combination analogies. The best one I can think of to describe Real Steel is that it's Rocky meets Big Daddy, with a lot of other elements in between. Sure, the boxing/robot boxing aspect does come into play with the Rocky comparisons, but it's more prevalent with Charlie Denton, a dude who has had a rough go at life lately and has this one shot at greatness, albeit as an incredible underdog. The beauty of John Gatins' screenplay, which is loosely adapted from the Richard Matheson short story "Steel," is it still finds a way to make us root for Charlie, despite his rather deplorable acts of abandoning his child, blackmail, and other shady dealings. While it may sound like its harder to root for Charlie, on paper, these elements only make his journey to redemption that much more effective. The Big Daddy aspect is due to the awkward father-son relationship between Charlie and Max. Neither of them really want to be with each other, and yet, through a lot of trial and error, they find a way to come together as both robot boxing partners and father and son. We also get the ex-love interest (and possible future love interest) in Evageline Lily's Bailey Tallett, whose father used to manage Charlie in his boxing days, and, despite her better judgment, she still ends up helping him by fixing up his battered robots. The one major aspect I wasn't a big fan of though is Max's aunt (Hope Davis) and uncle (James Rebhorn), a wealthy couple who desperately want to take care of Max... although their European vacation poses a problem, which leads to Charlie taking Max for the summer. I suppose it adds a bit more drama to the end of the story, but it's still a rather worthless sub-plot. Aside from that, and a bizarre scene with Charlie and Bailey at the end which doesn't seem to make much sense, Gatins delivers with a very solid screenplay. If you look at all these aspects separately, they don't appear to add up to much, but it all comes together in surprisingly effective ways.
I thoroughly enjoyed the performances here, but, admittedly, I was pleasantly surprised with young Dakota Goyo, who plays Charlie's son Max. He comes off as an accomplished veteran actor who is somehow compressed into a 12-year-old's body. This kid has chops, and his chemistry with Hugh Jackman is as natural as it comes. Hugh Jackman does a great job, as per usual, and it's nice to see him tread into some unfamiliar territory with such a sleazy character as Charlie. Evangeline Lily performs admirably as Bailey, although her character seems more obligatory than anything, and it would've been nice to see a more fleshed-out character than this cookie-cutter love interest, since it's clear she can handle a deeper character. We're treated with a number of supporting turns from talented actors such as Anthony Mackie, as another low-rent robot boxing promoter, Kevin Durand as one of the many men Charlie owes money to, and Karl Yune as the robot boxing genius Tak Mashido, who designed the current WRB champ Zeus.
Shawn Levy is a director whose success has baffled many a critic, from The Pink Panther, to Just Married, to Night at the Museum. One wouldn't think that pedigree qualifies him to direct big-budget fare like Real Steel, but this is easily Levy's finest movie to date. He succeeds in not only giving us the spectacle of fantastically engaging robot boxing matches, but manages to tie in a number of suitable sub-plots which are just as engaging as the mechanized carnage in the ring. He brings out wonderful new things in Hugh Jackman (or things we're not used to seeing after a decade of Wolverine), and introduces us to a new child star in the making with Dakota Goyo.
The true beauty of Real Steel is that the path of the movie itself, from inception to completion, mirrors the underdog status of Charlie and Atom. Nobody was out there clamoring for an adaptation of this Richard Matheson short story. Nobody was begging to see robots fight each other, with an uplifting father-son story thrown in to boot. But, just like Charlie and Atom, Real Steel never quits, successfully chipping away at our preconceived cynicism with superb combination of technology and heart until you have no choice but to root for these fantastic underdogs. Simply put, Real Steel is the real deal, folks. My apologies for the corny rhyme, but would you have rather read a boxing pun instead?