Oct 07, 2011
I dreaded “Real Steel”. I had dubbed it the “Rock-em/Sock-em Robot” movie. The trailers for this movie were everywhere this summer and I had months to imagine every worst case scenario.
Hugh Jackman, aside from his performance in “The Prestige” and appearance in the “X-Men” franchise as the legendary Wolverine, has a tendency to select mediocre movies. Evangeline Lilly, despite being so much fun to look at, has been hard to find in the public eye since the end of her ABC series, LOST. I had never heard of the child actor, Dakota Goya. The most impressive movies on director, Shawn Levy’s resume are the “Night at the Museum” movies. The premise seemed silly: robot boxing? Truthfully, I was convinced that I had my fill of heavy metal war machines after Michael Bay’s latest installment of “Transformers”. I was ready to write this movie off and was contemplating my escape plan from the theater and wondering how much of this movie I would have to sit through to write a review.
Shocking revelation: “Real Steel” packs a punch!
In our very near future, human boxing has been outlawed. Regardless of how brutal any mixed martial arts fight can get, the people demanded more and so the world of robot boxing was invented. It is a world where the best bot wins and it takes a high-tech team and a lot of money to make it out of the semi-legal circuit and into the big time arenas.
Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a boxer who, in spite a having a lot of heart finds himself discarded after the sport goes mechanical. Charlie is now a small-time promoter forced to make appearances at county fairs with such degrading stunts as having his badly-beaten bot (who has obviously seen better days) fight 2000lb bulls. In debt and considered a bad bet by even his best friends, it looks like Charlie’s days in the sport are numbered.
He runs home to Tallet’s Gym and the last friend he has left, Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly). Bailey is a robot mechanic and the daughter of Charlie’s former boxing trainer. The two have a tenuous romance weakened by Charlie’s tendency to discard people as easily as he does his broken down robots.
After the death of an ex-girlfriend, Charlie receives custody of his 11-year-old son, Max Kenton (Dakota Goya) and “sells” him to his aunt with a well-off husband who want to raise him. Charlie sees it as a win-win; they can take care of him better than he can and Charlie needs the money. The only hitch is a long-planned vacation to Italy for the rich couple so Charlie agrees to take the boy over the summer. The two discover an early model sparring robot in a junkyard and take on rebuilding it and teaching it to box together. They name the robot “Atom.” The robot becomes the underdog that can’t be beat and the father-son bonding begins.
O.K., so the target audience for “Real Steel” is 12-year-old boys who love video games. The premise is a little silly after all and the film drags out every trope from every boxing movie ever made. The sentimental moments are heavy-handed and the emotional deck is stacked against the audience. So why does this movie work?
Like the underdog boxer that doesn’t know when he is beat, someone forgot to tell “Real Steel” that it was supposed to be a bad movie. Hugh Jackman makes the unlikable character of Charlie work and the dynamics between Max and his estranged father are funny and play well. Evangeline Lilly does as much as she can with the thin character of Bailey and communicates a lot with every expression to cross her adorable face. Even if you didn’t already love her as Kate on “LOST” she will win you over as Bailey Tallet. I might have never heard of Dakota Goya before but I am willing to bet this isn’t the last movie we see him in. The movie may drag a little as it sets up but once the bots start beating each other to scrap metal, the movie wins the audience over and carries them swiftly to the ultimate climax.
This is an obvious David and Goliath story. It brought back recollections of the “Rocky” franchise. “Real Steel” has its own Apollo Creed in Zeus. Zeus is the most advanced machine in the ring with programming talent and money to back him. He is undefeated and most bots don’t last more than two rounds with the champ. He is massive and a giant even among the machines of this sport. Atom is small and a real underdog. If you aren’t hearing “Eye of the Tiger” in your head then you aren’t making the obvious connection here. The climax of this film is everything that the final round of a “Rocky” film is.
The real measure of a boxing movie is how much the audience can root for the protagonist, in the theater at the end of this movie there was a row of boys from 4 to 14 standing applauding and swinging shadow punches.
My lesson learned is not to count a movie out until the final bell. “Real Steel” has all the heart of “Rocky II” and while it might not be art, it really was a crowd pleaser. I want to watch it again with my son.