There is no film this year less likely to work than Real Steel and no film more surprising when it actually does. It takes a grim, gritty short story from Richard Matheson – initially transformed into a magnificent episode of The Twilight Zone – and utterly Hollywoodizes it. Boxing clichés pile on fast and thick, with the use of futuristic robots intended to excuse their exhausted nature and a father-son bonding subplot thrown in to pack it full of false sentiment. It should be disastrous. It should suck on Wonder Bread with a side order of Craptastic to wash it down. And yet… and yet… my God, is there actually a good time in there?
A great deal of credit goes to Hugh Jackman, one of the few true movie stars in this day and age, who can sell us a project we have no earthly business buying. His partner in crime is Dakota Goyo, who plays his estranged son now stuck with him for the summer. It’s the near future and Jackman’s washed-up ex-boxer is working the robot fighting circuit. Flesh-and-blood pugilists no longer constitute a draw. Instead, giant mechanical contraptions with names like Rampage and Noisy Boy dominate the ring: controlled remotely by skilled operators and tirelessly feeding the crowd’s endless bloodlust.
Charlie Kenton (Jackman) occupies the lowest possible rung in this world. He ekes out a living in underground clubs, cobbling together spare parts into rickety creations that can barely last five minutes. He owes so much money that he’s willing to sell his kid to get it, and agrees to take the boy on for a few months only after collecting a hefty sum from his in-laws. Then they discover a discarded robot named Atom in the junk heap: a scrappy little mechanical fighter that may hold the answers to all their problems.
Director Shawn Levy leaves no chestnut unturned in his heroes’ Rocky-esque rise to the top. They move from back-alley rings to quasi-legitimate nightclubs to big league battles broadcast to millions of people. No one thinks they have a chance of course, and of course, there’s a variety of bigger, meaner opponents (complete with condescending owners) standing in their way. The structure is shameless, and never deviates to anything remotely smacking of creativity.
Levy counteracts it with the little details. New effects technology allows him to choreograph the robot fights with unprecedented freedom, and the swooping camera angles lend them a vibrancy that earlier robot movies lack. The CG bots fit in with the grimy sets quite well, and there’s a visceral thrill in watching them pound each other to snot. Even as we count off the predictable narrative beats one after the other, the basics still hold our attention throughout.
The same thing happens with the human drama at the center of it. Jackman and Goyo play off each other marvelously, side-stepping the copious amounts of schmaltz from the script and selling us on the emotional truths of their relationship. Jackman can play unlikable figures extremely well (his turn in The Prestige represents a career high), but he balances it here with his innate charm and a chemistry with Goyo that overcomes the periodic “precocious child” moments. Evangeline Lilly does her best with the largely thankless role of routine love interest, but the real supporting juice comes from Kevin Durand, as one of the hero’s creditors. He continues to make a splash in every film he does, and his presence here serves as a reminder that comparatively small elements often make a big difference.
Real Steel ultimately works best as a family film, despite its PG-13 rating and some salty material befitting a boxing movie. Kids will love the rock ‘em sock ‘em fights and Atom remains a weirdly endearing mascot, while the child onscreen serves as a nice surrogate for them to relate to. As for the rest of us, Jackman has that covered. Branding it a “must see” is probably going too far, but it hangs in there until the final bell and delivers on some modest promises in the interim. There’s no sign of Matheson here, and that’s a shame. Thankfully, Real Steel still gives us something worth paying attention to.