‘Real Steel’ is set in the future but it has a very retro feel to it, coming from a long tradition of family – orientated blockbusters intended to rake in the cash by appealing to all potential viewers. The film has plenty of action and big robots, to appeal to boys of all ages, plus Evangeline Lily from ‘Lost’ for the older males. There is touchy-feely family stuff with a dose of gloopy sentiment to win over those with softer hearts. The Hollywood quest to crack this magic formula has been going on for many decades and there is a certain timeless quality about ‘Real Steel.’ It could easily have been made in the Eighties, where it would have starred the likes of Dennis Quaid and featured ropey stop – motion effects. But this is the twenty-first century, so the pyrotechnics are top notch CGI and the starring role goes to old Wolverine himself, Hugh Jackman.
Jackman plays an ex-boxer named Charlie Kenton, who is now down on his luck. Presumably, he was a pretty good boxer as Charlie is undamaged, physically or mentally. In this future world the sport of boxing has changed. Where audiences were once content to watch men bash the hell out of each other, they had started to demand more and more violence. The people’s quest for blood went beyond human endurance, so man was replaced with machine and the sport of robot boxing was born. Now audiences get worked up over two metal goliaths smashing each other into tin cans whilst being operated from outside the ring.
Charlie owns and operates one of these machines but frankly he is a bit rubbish at it. With debts piling up, the old fighter has been reduced to putting his robot into a low rent rodeo show, where it comes off worst after an encounter with a bull. With little but scrap metal left, Charlie really needs a plot twist to help him out. Along comes the news that an ex-girlfriend has died, leaving him with an eleven year old son called Max (Dakota Goyo) to look after.
Charlie is not a people person. As one character observes, he has spent so much time with robots that he has virtually become one. He wants nothing to do with his son and plans to give up custody to the boy’s aunt and her rich husband in return for the cash to buy a new robot. Max wants to get to know his father, even though his dad has little interest in him that is not beyond the financial. Charlie really does need looking after. He blows his money on a flash Japanese robot called ‘Noisy Boy’, a fantastic looking droid which he promptly puts into a fight that is way out of his league. It does not help that the automaton responds to directions in its native language. Pretty soon ‘Noisy Boy’ is silenced for good.
Luckily, the computer savvy Max is a lot better at this game than his father. During a rain HYPHEN soaked trip to a scrap yard he uncovers the remains of ‘Atom’, an old sparring bot that had been a virtual punch bag for other robots. Dad writes Atom off as a pile of trash but Max has faith in the tin man. With the aid of an unlikely and very clean mechanic, Bailey (Evangeline Lily), he restores the robot and persuades Charlie to enter him into a bout. Wouldn’t you know it, Atom turns out to be a smash in the ring and soon father and son are heading for a big tournament that might bring them closer than both imagined.
It would be easy to take a cynical stance on ‘Real Steel’ as there is a certain amount of cynicism in the film’s construction. Based on a short story by Richard Matheson, this is a concept movie where the robot boxing is a hook on which to hang a pretty cheesy plot that takes a predictable route to an overtly sentimental finish. When we learn that ‘Atom’ has a ‘shadow function’, allowing it to mimic the movements of its operator, you will not need a degree in screenwriting to figure out where the movie is heading to.
Despite this, ‘Raw Steel’ is a good deal of cacophonous fun and, despite is its metal stars, the film has more heart to it than a lot of movies of this ilk. The boxing scenes are rousing stuff and for once we can enjoy the crunching and crashing violence in the knowledge that it is not directed at living beings. Children will find it all very exciting and perhaps their parents will too, providing it does not give them a headache. Still, that will be nothing compared to the migraine they will get from their offspring pestering them for toy versions of Atom, Noisy Boy et al come Christmas time. The merchandising department at the DreamWorks Studio (which made the film) must be very happy indeed about ‘Real Steel.’
The robots in ‘Real Steel’ are beautifully designed, particularly Noisy Boy. The human performers do their best, in the circumstances but the droids are the real stars of this show. ‘Real Steel’ is set in the future and yet, there appears to have been no technological advancement other than in the sport of robot boxing. Everything else might just as well have come from the present day. Perhaps director Shawn Levy, who also brought us ‘Night at the Museum’, has missed a trick in failing to come up with a more imaginative vision of things to come.
The real black marks for ‘Real Steel’ are given to the film’s portrayal of villainy. Atom takes on ‘Zeus,’ a highly advanced super robot controlled by a soulless Japanese genius. He is partnered by a sultry female with an indeterminate East European accent. Both are pretty lazy racial stereotypes. If you wanted to analyse the film, you could read Atom battling Zeus as a US imperialist fantasy, in which American working class determination and might struggles against a cold and calculating Asian corporate power. If you wanted to, that is. ‘Real Steel’ may have nostalgic overtones but this is one element of old Hollywood that should have been left behind in the dressing room.
Director: Shawn Levy
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly.
Runtime: 126 mins