'Real Steel' sets the bar low, but gets as much out of its intentions as it can
Real Steel Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Shawn Levy
Screenplay: John Gatins, based in part on the short story Steel, by Richard Matheson
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand,
Hope Davis and James Rebhorn
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 7 minutes
(out of four)
For a film set nine years in the future, Real Steel is deceptively old-fashioned. It calls to mind a
certain brand of silly futuristic film from the '70s or '80s (The Running Man, Death Race 2000,
RoboCop), as well as the earnestness of the most gratuitously crowd-pleasing underdog sports
movies. What we get is the charming idiocy of the former (but without the satirical bent to fully
justify it) and the audience-pandering of the latter.
I don't necessarily mean these descriptions as insults. The movie works, in its own way, piling
on as much warming of hearts, defying of odds and lifting of spirits as it (and we) can stomach.
It's a time-tested formula, and here it gets milked for all it's worth. It's not much different from
this year's Warrior, which was similarly built on sports-movie cliches and, as it happens, worked
like a charm.
Real Steel may not work quite as well, but that's not for a lack of showmanship. It stacks the
emotional and dramatic odds so firmly in its heroes' favor that we can't help but root for who
we're supposed to root for. It is triumphant and exciting when it needs to be.
No, the faults have nothing to do with the film's ability to play the crowd or tell a familiar story
reasonably well, but with its chosen context. The story takes place in the year 2020, at which
point human boxing has become a thing of the past, replaced by bionic pugilism (a phrase I use
only because "robot boxing" sounds so silly). High-tech fighting machines are built, designed by
artists and engineers, trained by former fighters, branded by businessmen and marketers, and
finally thrown into the ring to fight one another, controlled by their owners with what amounts to
an advanced video-game controller.
The big money is in the World Robot Boxing league, but there's
an underground circuit, too - ya know, for hard-luck robots, past-their-prime robots, robots
who've developed a drinking problem, etc.
The problem, for me at least, is that the filmmakers provide virtually no comment on the world
of the film itself - they have nothing to say about America circa 2020. They aren't remotely
interested in examining a near future in which robot boxing might exist, or a culture that would
turn robot boxing into its preeminent sporting event. No, they just want to have robots box each
other in a ring, and since that technology doesn't currently exist, their only recourse is to set the
film in the future. But that future itself is of no concern. (Sure, the cell phone and computer
screens are advanced, but that's pretty much it.)
If that's the way director Shawn Levy and writer John Gatins wanted to go, fine - but that
approach seems to strip the movie of its backdrop. Perhaps the thinking was that any further
exploration of the year 2020 would detract from the human element. Which is a nice sentiment, I
suppose, until you remember that the main attraction is a bunch of giant fighting robots. Human
Hugh Jackman anchors that human story as a down-on-his-luck ex-boxer (I know, I know) who
owes money all over town (I know) and suddenly gets custody of the son he abandoned (I
know!), with whom he teams up on a quest for a boatload of money redemption. The villains are
as one-dimensional as they come - first, another ex-boxer (played by Kevin Durand) to whom
Charlie Kenton (Jackman) owes money; and second, a cold, calculating businesswoman and her
genius robot designer Tak Mashido, whose masterwork Zeus is the current WRB champion.
Charlie makes a living touring state farms, rodeos and seedy underground tournaments with his
own robot - that is, whenever he actually has one. His bots don't usually last very long. While
scavenging a junkyard for spare parts one night with his plucky son Max (Dakota Goyo), he
finds an old "sparring robot" named Atom, a relic from years ago when robot boxing was just
getting off the ground.
I don't have to tell you the rest of the story. Every angle you
expect to see, you will see, including the climactic battle with the champion Zeus against the
underdog Atom. (In the sequel, I assume Atom will face off against the iRobot, which will be a
slightly more advanced version of everyone else's advanced robots. No way Apple doesn't get in
on this racket.)
One thing I admire is the design of the robots themselves. I hate to do this, but I'm once again
forced to make a Michael Bay comparison. Every robot in Real Steel is uniquely designed, with
its own distinctive personality and style. The same can't always be said of the robots in Bay's
Transformers series - which are a triumph of magnificent special-effects work, but are total duds
when you actually look at them. Metal-on-metal monstrosities with bland color schemes and
visual idiosyncracies that show, at times, a stunning lack of creativity.
But that is one area where Real Steel excels. The robots look fantastic. They feel like characters
(in the ring, at least) and seem like pretty plausible examples of what boxing robots might really
look like, if robot boxing existed. So, a tip of my hat to the art direction.
But I digress.
Child actors are always a risky proposition, especially when a film counts on them as much as
Real Steel counts on theirs. Thankfully, Goyo is a solid actor with natural charisma and attitude,
and he makes a nice pairing with the always reliable Hugh Jackman - who, it must be said, is
better than movies like this.
Oh, and Evangeline Lilly is in here, too, in a typically underwritten role - the lady who supports
Charlie when he needs support, admonishes him when he needs to be admonished, kisses him
when the movie needs a romantic interlude, and cheers him on at the end. Like Jackman, I hope
Lilly eventually moves on to roles she deserves.
If I sound cynical about the film, it's only because it aims so low. But, given that, it succeeds as
well as it can. It's not that Real Steel is a bad movie - it's just a fundamentally uninteresting one.