Review: Shawn Levy's 'Real Steel' Has Little Punch, Even Less Heart
by Jeremy Kirk
October 7, 2011
The films about pugilism, the ones about father-and-son connections, the ones about giant robots, all come to run stagnant ropes in Real Steel, a graveyard of has-been ideas, hackneyed melodrama, and a chemistry set that has the basic ingredients but none of the spark or power of greater films that came before it. It's the kind of film that thinks it has heart, and on the surface, it might give that impression, but without true emotion or the basic human flare that made films like Rocky and, yes, even Over the Top have a semblance of working, Real Steel lumbers like a trashed automaton just waiting to be punched into submission.
Set in a near future where human contact sports have been outlawed - evidently brain cells are a protected human element in our future - the world turns to robot boxing, giant hulks of metal and circuitry battling it out while human managers control them. Hugh Jackman plays Charlie, a down-on-his luck manager and former pro boxer who is down to his last fight before loan sharks break his legs. Another stick thrown into Charlie's wheel of forward motion is his son, 11-year-old Max (Dakota Goyo) who comes under Charlie's care after the mother's untimely death. As with these types of movie, Charlie and Max don't get along at first but bonding quickly rears it ugly head especially after Max finds Atom, a sparring bot, in a trash heap. The boy wishes to turn Atom into a real fighting bot, and much to Charlie's surprise, he has a knack for winning.
Real Steel is directed by Shawn Levy of Night at the Museum and Date Night fame, so any level of spice or teeth to be found in Real Steel is unexpected to say the very least. It's not that Levy is a poor or even a hack director. The world of Real Steel feels natural, more close to ours than a far horizon future we can't even fathom. The underground boxing scene, the robots fighting in abandoned zoos or even going head-to-head against a live bull, have a rustic, dirty feel about them. The glitz of the big leagues has its own feel, as well. Every setting in Real Steel feels natural to that world, and much to Levy's credit, it all feels realistic, as well.
Much of that comes from the robot fights themselves. The design of these robots is impeccable, each given their own unique characteristic to easily differentiate between them. It seems like such an obvious aspect to have in these types of movies, the ability to tell which robot is throwing the punch and which robot is getting hit in the head. But looking at films like Transformers proves that it's never a given. There's a weight to these robots and the fights they have, as well, an impressive mixture of computer effects, practical creations, and some very effective sound design that all comes together to give the metal-on-metal clanging the right amount of realism.
Unfortunately, that's where the realism in Real Steel comes to a halt, with the robots. The human element to the film, the relationships Charlie has with his angry son and even his partner, Bailey, played by Evangeline Lilly, is so trite, so obvious, that the pain-by-numbers of it all doesn't even seem to get filled in. Instead, it remains a white sheet of outlines where real character moments stand vacant. The bond growing between Charlie and Max throughout the film's second act is so clear and banal that by the time they actually start getting along, you feel like the movie has caught up with you when it should be the other way around.
Some of that is in the screenwriting. Some of it is Levy's direction of his actors, but a lot of it comes from the chemistry of the actors. Jackman gives his all, always steps in and turns on the acting juices as much as he can. But there's only so much an energetic actor can do when working with a child actor, particularly one as drab and graceless as Dakota Goyo. Goyo comes off not as a child but as a child actor who is trying to act like a child. There's a definite divide between those two things, and the fact that nothing natural seems to come from him could be lain at Levy's feet, as well. The moments between Max and Atom work a bit better, possibly an indicator of the kid's anxiety working against fellow actors. But this could also be an indicator of how skillfully crafted Atom and the other robots in Real Steel are. A small moment involving Jackman shadowboxing with Atom gives the only truly moment of awe found within the entire film.
Beyond that, though, the film rides the obvious line all the way to the end. Never deviating from the plan or interjecting any flavor into its bland concoction of lifted ideas, Real Steel sits there like a brand new laptop. It looks shiny and slick, and when you turn it on it lights up with brilliant color, but garbage-in-garbage-out, and no amount of spit-shine will help this trashed robot deliver anything close to an effective right jab.
Jeremy's Rating: 5 out of 10