Review: 'Real Steel' is a Knockout Underdog Story Full of Fun & Heart
by Ethan Anderton
October 6, 2011
Since the project was revealed, there have been plenty of naysayers writing off Real Steel even before the first trailer started making the rounds. It's not difficult to understand why considering Shawn Levy, the man behind such family fare as The Pink Panther and Night at the Museum, was behind the camera, and the Transformers franchise was already quenching most of our thirst for fighting robots. But audiences should be pleased and maybe surprised to hear that Real Steel is not merely a Rock’em Sock’em Robots adaptation, but a great underdog sports story with a lot of heart that doesn't rely on special effects to drive the film.
Set roughly 15 years in the future, our story follows obsolete boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) as he desperately tries to stay afloat, traveling the country with any robot he can find in The Underworld of robot boxing. No match pays too little, mainly because Charlie doesn't have any money, as he finds his robot Ambush taking on a big bull. Plenty of people already don't trust Charlie, so it's not all that surprising to learn that he has a precocious 11-year old son named Max (Dakota Goyo) who hasn't been a part of his life in any capacity. In a film called Real Steel, where audiences are likely fixated on the metal-smashing fights between various robots, it's refreshing to see just how much screentime the redemption of an estranged father and his neglected son gets to flourish. And with the chemistry between Jackman and Goyo, who shines as a young kid with an excess of charming energy and personality, that's definitely a good thing.
With this touching story of rekindling a father/son relationship at its core, Real Steel is about more than just throwing nuts and bolts around in the ring. This kind of grounded story within a tentpole sci-fi concept gives the film a certain kind of magic that is reminiscent of Steven Spielberg's (an executive producer work through his Amblin Entertainment banner. And since the robots are not meant to be sentient characters unto themselves, their personality comes through in their controllers and fight moves. That's what makes Charlie and Max's newfound robot Atom, a sparring bot meant to take hits but never get in the ring to fight, such a special fighter. There's hints at something behind his light-up eyes, but nothing on the nose that ruins the subtle magic that lies on the surface.
Aside from the characters and the heartfelt story that serves as the backbone, Levy has crafted a universe that feels grounded despite the presence of non-existent technology. With dirty, mostly rural or industrial settings (heightened by a folksy score by Danny Elfman), it's nothing like the futuristic landscapes from films like Minority Report or Blade Runner, though it shares the gritty feel of the two films' settings. And its within this world that it's easy to forget that this is a Shawn Levy film. With help from cinematographer Mauro Fiore, you'd think the man who shot Avatar would deliver a polished, glossy film, but here there's more of a presence of his work on Training Day and The Kingdom, which again helps the film keep its feet firmly on the ground.
But that doesn't mean these robots don't shine with a stunning, and mostly indecipherable combination of practical and CG special effects made possible by the team behind Avatar's stunning environments and motion capture special effects. In addition, the glitz and glamor of the officially sanctioned and sponsored World Robot Boxing league is straight out of the real boxing world with a touch of NASCAR tossed in as well. It's small touches like ads for an Xbox 720, and paparazzi obsessively taking pictures of champion robots like Zeus, that help make the prospect of metal-smashing robot fights that much more believable. Though at times, the fights may go on just a little too long
The world of Real Steel is also brought to life courtesy of some spectacular supporting performances. The most praiseworthy turn comes from Evangeline Lily as Bailey Tallet, in her first major role after finishing ABC's "Lost", as her complicated relationship with Charlie is genuine and touching. Some more colorful characters come in the form of the tough Kevin Durand (Robin Hood, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and Anthony Mackie, both energetic parties in the Underworld of robot boxing. I think the only shortcoming is that the villains behind the champion robot for the climactic fight aren't nearly as intimidating as they should be. Part of me wishes a bigger name would've been chosen for the role.
If you're among the audiences who are disregarding Real Steel as empty, flashy big screen fare, you're going to be surprised when it wins you over. This movie will also have legs at the box office, and has the power to please families and hardcore movie fans alike. Real Steel has the feel of a movie Spielberg could have directed himself (but it might not be much better if he did) back in the 80's, with the uplifting feel of the best underdog sports movies like Rocky for mature moviegoers, and The Karate Kid for those who have a soft spot for childhood nostalgia. Levy has simultaneously delivered a grounded but fun action-packed film that no one expected, and crafted a story that hits all the sweet spots to make a great sports film. Real Steel has spectacular action, solid performances, amazing special effects, but most importantly, real heart.
Ethan's Rating: 8 out of 10