Buried somewhere under the surface of REAL STEEL is a message movie about the ever increasing desire for violence in our culture. It takes place in the not-so-distant future where the most popular sport is robot boxing. The movie informs us in one scene that this is due to society’s need for more carnage in their boxing matches (read: fight to the death), than human fighters could morally/ethically/legally provide. Is this where our society is truly headed? Maybe. REAL STEEL brushes social commentary aside, however, and chooses instead to focus on an often cheesy father/son drama in the center of a Rocky-inspired underdog drama. Probably a good choice, as that story turns out to be rather entertaining.
The father is Charlie Kenton, a former boxer who now manages robot boxers. Managing, in this case, means buying them, fixing them up, booking them fights, and then controlling them like a giant, walking video game character. Following the unfortunate destruction of one of his fighters, Charlie is informed that his former girlfriend has passed away, leaving him with custody of a son that he hasn’t seen in eleven years. He wants nothing to do with the kid and is perfectly happy to sign over custody to the boy’s aunt, but not before making a deal with her wealthy husband, essentially selling his son for one hundred thousand dollars.
For appearances, he decides to keep the kid, Max, with him for the summer. He tries to dump him off on his sometime girlfriend Bailey, but Max insists that he be brought along to the fights. After another robot bites the dust, Charlie and Max go searching for spare parts in the junkyard, where Max stumbles—literally—on an intact, but outdated robot. Max cleans up the robot, named Atom, and teaches him a few moves, but it is not until Charlie agrees to train him like a real boxer does Atom’s potential begin to show. Designed as a sparring robot, Atom is built to take a hit, but can he dish out enough punishment to compete against the most powerful, technologically advanced robots in the world?
Immediately upon seeing the trailer for Real Steel some months ago, two comparisons instantly sprang to mind: Transformers and “Rock’em Sock’em Robots. Rock’em Sock’em Robots, of course, is a toy that features two plastic robots duking it out in a tiny boxing ring. The game has already made a cameo in Toy Story 2, but now seems to have inspired its own big screen drama. Honestly, the filmmakers might as well have just named this movie after the toy.
The height of the toy’s popularity came in the 1980s, about the same time the original Transformers series was distracting kids from their homework. When it comes to robots fighting it out on the big screen, the modern Transformers series has definitely set the bar, but Real Steel actually does it better. Since the robots in Real Steel don’t transform, there is no need for the production’s robot designers to worry about where certain pieces might move when the robot becomes a car and vice versa. This means the robots of Real Steel can be simpler in design, which makes their movements much easier to follow. It further helps that motion capture techniques were used to emulate the fighting styles of real boxers. For example, Sugar Ray Leonard served as a consultant on the film, training star Hugh Jackman, and acting as the model for Atom’s fighting style.
By simplifying the design of the robots and using motion capture to create realistic movements, the filmmakers manage to make their inhuman characters, well, more human.
Now, when it comes to the human story, things get a little more robotic. The father/son bonding plot is very predictable and marred by some horrible slow-motion shots that drive the emotional point home a little too strongly.
What saves the human story from becoming too schmaltzy is the kid. It seems these days that a lot of movie kids are a little too adult. Their motives and actions are too rational and emotionless. Although Max definitely has his adult moments, as played by young actor Dakota Goya, he still maintains his youthful exuberance. This is evident in an early scene when Max, on a caffeine high, teaches Atom how to dance, and it is very clear in a later scene when Max hijacks an arena microphone to challenge the world champion of robot boxing.
Hugh Jackman does a fine job as Charlie, too, but it is the kid and the robots that make Real Steel as entertaining as it surprisingly turns out to be. Just don’t try to read too much into it.
Real Steel is rated PG-13 for “some violence, intense action and brief language.” “Some” violence is something of an understatement and if it were humans fighting and not robots, you could expect an R rating. But, it’s robots, so bring the kids!
Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of REAL STEEL.