Review: Shawn Levy's 'Real Steel' Has Little Punch, Even Less Heart

October 7, 2011

Real Steel Review

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

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All credit to you guys for posting both Ethan & Jeremy's reviews. So many websites take the 'one review=our opinion' option, it's really great to see you offering a variety of perspectives. Have you thought about combining reviews, and doing a back and forth dialogue between two reviewers? No doubt it would be clunky and take longer to edit (hehe) and post, but it would be great to read where you differ on films. Anyway, just a thought.

Lebowski on Oct 7, 2011


We both go toe-to-toe on the film in the latest episode of The Golden Briefcase right here: Glad you like the contrasting views on the site!

Ethan Anderton on Oct 9, 2011


U dont know what ur talking about. I just saw this at it was amazing!

Jamesbond7272011 on Oct 7, 2011


I disagree with this review.  I thought there were genuinely good moments between Jackman and Goyo.  Was this movie the best of all time?  Of course not.  But was it a fun film that was better than a 5 out of 10?  I think it was.  Even though I disagree though, good review, thanks for the thoughts!

Anonymous on Oct 7, 2011


After Lost began, I thought the gorgeous and talented Evangeline Lilly had a promising career ahead of her and would become a bigger star but she has done so little in the last seven years. I hope she’ll do more mainstream movies from now on and have a career renaissance with Real Steel and The Hobbit films. It’s an exceptional performance by her in Real Steel, just wonderful.

Maguire on Oct 7, 2011


Jeremy...WHAT THE HECK IS WRONG WITH YOU?!!! When did you stop being a kid anyway? Didn't you ever play "Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots" and wish it was real? I was lost the film the WHOLE time. I laughed, I cried, and I cheered. I'm SO glad I don't read reviews before watching a film. I don't think I've EVER seen a movie that a critic didn't like, I didn't LOVE, and REAL STEEL is no exception. Tell you what, if you can do better, you direct a film...the "right" way and I promise I'll go watch it...NO MATTER WHAT THE CRITICS SAY! - G2-Atom

Roninkayne on Oct 7, 2011


I've been reading Firstshowing since day 1, literally... and i have never disagreed with a review as much as i do this one. I really enjoyed this movie!

Hairball87 on Oct 7, 2011


I loved it. It was a really, REALLY fun movie. I give it 8 outta 10. As for your review...this movie K.O.'ed it.

WhatFunIsThere on Oct 8, 2011


Great review. As always.

Davide Coppola on Oct 8, 2011


I'll watch this and have my own opinion Im sure, but I was wondering when I saw the trailer if this would have the same heart as lets say "the Champ" (with the down on his luck dad and the kid who believed in him) or perhaps "Requiem for a heavy weight"...Rocky is the obvious comparison but I feel the other two films I mentioned carry a lot more heart and emotion...  The fact that people either LOVED it or HATED it is a good sign in my opinion, and thank you guys for posting both sides!

Lando on Oct 8, 2011


I have been reading firstshowing since day one and ever since you began reviewing films on this site I have never agreed with any of your opinions.  Usually I look at your review so I can know to feel the exact opposite about a film that you do.  I know it is subjective, but you really seem to be out of touch with what the majority thinks and you definitely don't mesh with this site in the slightest. I'm sorry if that's harsh, but I'm sick of your pretentious taste and for someone who claims to love cinema you sure hate anything mainstream.  I knew kids like you in film school and you just hate everything popular to be different regardless of if you actually enjoyed it.  You're an indie hipster and you don't belong here. I highly enjoyed this film and the 2 young boys I saw it with had one of the best days of their life watching it.  They spent all day re-enacting every scene. I hope no one reads your reviews and allows them to sway their opinion.  Listening to you would kill any hope the film industry has of inspiring another generation of film makers because everything you recommend is boring and everything you hate is entertaining.

peloquin on Oct 8, 2011


If you're so keen to follow the majority, you should only be looking at box office numbers - not critics' reviews. I just hope people aren't taken in by your pathetic ad hominems. Keep it up Jeremy! Those of us who actually care about honesty in critics and originality in films support you.

God on Oct 8, 2011


I couldn't agree more with this review. Real Steel is mediocre at best, and I'm appalled by the volume of positive reviews. Don't waste your money! It's not even a decent popcorn flick.

God on Oct 8, 2011


I'm with, uh, God on this one. Went to see it based on the earlier positive review but my opinion of the film falls more in line with this one.

Kr8r on Oct 10, 2011


ARE YOU HIGH!?!? seriously i loved this movie, it was like Rocky with a side story like that of Karate Kid. the detail this reviewer put about how well the robots fight and look then throw around the human side proves this reviewer only listened to how the actors sounded rather than what they actually put into it...

Satan on Oct 10, 2011


this movie was great you are just a stupid shit stained underwear wearing bad b.o. 400 pound girl fucker who gets off smearing big macs in her face while you worm your 2" dick into her humongous ass all the while you are high on meth and eating twinkees. i hate people like you who don't appreciate a good crowd pleasing popcorn movie. it was good, you're a heartless dickhead, as well as everything i said above. i hope somebody strangles you with razor wire you scum sucking BASTAAAAARD!!!!!

David Baer on Oct 11, 2011


My kids and I loved it.  It was a great father-son movie.  No it wasn't Ricky Schroder in The Champ (though the kid did remind me of him), but it actually had a pretty good story behind it.  The fighting robot scenes were spaced far enough apart to not make it nothing but constant robot fighting, but were close enough to hold the kids attention through the non-action parts that they actually paid attention to the developing father-son story.

Rickdon on Oct 12, 2011


Just watched this last night... had to google to find if anyone else out there thought that GOYO was terrible... when he grabs the mic and starts yelling for a shot at Zeuss I almost puked on myself it was so bad... he was full on yelling... wow... and he was a terrible dancer... if you are going to make dancing a thing for this kid find a kid who can dance... at least then we'd be like "Well he wasn't much of an actor, but the kid could dance..." ... Literally worst child performance I've ever seen ... Great review... spot on

Mike on Sep 13, 2012

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