Remember that old toy Rock’Em Sock’Em Robots, where two
kids would sit outside a ring with a couple of plastic toy robots and pound
on each other’s fighter until one kid had to cry out “You knocked my block
Well, you may be forgiven for thinking that Real
Steel is a celluloid version of that game – and you wouldn’t be totally
wrong. A traditional boxing film with the caveat that the boxers are
actually robots, even though it is a bit better a film than you would
expect, Real Steel is constantly fighting a losing battle against its
one serious Achilles heel. It is nearly impossible to get emotionally
invested in a bunch of machines beating the crap out of each other.
However, despite this problem, Real Steel
invests enough time on the human characters surrounding the bots to give the
movie a heart and a pulse, even if the film’s main selling points do not
Real Steel is loosely based on a
1956 short story called “Steel” by brilliant
early sci-fi author Richard Matheson (some of the
other films based on his work include I Am Legend, The Box, Duel, Stir of
Echoes, The Legend of Hill House and Somewhere In Time). The
premise is simple enough; in the near future boxing becomes too tame a
sport, so boxers are replaced by giant robots that pulverize each other in
the ring. Therefore, no matter how badly injured one participant may be,
there is never the need to call a fight. It is a fight to the death –
despite the fact that the fighters were never actually alive.
In this near-future world we are introduced to Charlie
Kenton, a former small-time boxer who adjusted with the times and learned to
fight robots. Kenton is a con-man and horribly self-absorbed, stuck in the
loser underground of this new boxing world order.
Then, one day, he learns that his son Max (Dakota Goyo)
that he has never known has been orphaned. Flim-flam man to the last,
Charlie tries to extort money from his former girlfriend’s sister to buy a
new robot. He agrees to sign over custody of the kid in exchange for
$100,000 – but he has to take care of the kid for a couple of months while
the new family is out of the country.
You know where this is all going, right?
Much like the junkyard robots which are built to pummel
each other in the ring, Real Steel’s script cobbles together a bunch
of parts from earlier films to make a rather unwieldy but somewhat
satisfying whole. Plot lines and developments from films like Rocky,
Transformers, Over the Top and (oddly enough)
Paper Moon are confiscated to build the contraption. It makes
for a slightly clunky, slightly derivative, but mostly entertaining film.
Even though there is barely a
single surprising moment in Real Steel, it somehow does connect.
It’s formula, but it is well-made formula.
It is also Jackman’s best performance in years (at
least on film, he may have beat it onstage). In fact, the acting here is
way above the needs of the material, from Evangeline Lilly as Jackman’s
possible love interest to The Adjustment Bureau’s Anthony Mackie as
an old friend on the robot boxing circuit. Hell, any film that would be
savvy enough to hire an old critic’s darling like Hope Davis, even in the
somewhat nothing role of the woman who wants to separate father and son for
their own good, has to have something on the ball.
It still doesn’t change the fact that machines beating
the crap out of each other is still difficult to connect with
if you are older than ten. (And ten is probably
this film’s target audience.) However, unlike the
Transformers movies, these robots somewhat become extensions of human
characters – so it is a bit easier to feel for the bots
this time around.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2011 PopEntertainment.com.
All rights reserved. Posted: October 5, 2011.