Previously Published on Yell!
More in 'Reviews'
In this world, two types of people exist:
Those who have a natural inclination toward robots, and those who don’t.
Now, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a robot when I grew up. I didn’t really know how things worked; I just figured that I could eventually rebuild myself as some kind of automaton. That being said, you can see the natural bias I have toward a movie showcasing what is basically a series of robot battles.
If, however, you are not the proud owner of a penis, was never loved as a child, or you are one of those people who are terrified by technology, then you’ll probably be outright bored with a film such as this. It’s not like the story isn’t clearly based around human characters and their growth, but most of the sequences’ peaks lie in two emotionless machines going head to head and doing battle.
“I don’t like robots. You can’t hug a robot.” One might argue.
But why in the hell would anyone in their right mind want to do that? The most entertaining (and, thus, the most obvious) thing you can do is have two of them square off and duke it out for a shot of mechanical supremacy. It’s the next natural step from professional fighting as one sport converges with superior technology, and it’s that idea that forms the basic setting for this film. People want their combative sports soaked in more action, and science is totally all over the place, so it only makes sense.
And so, you’ve got Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton – a former boxer whose main source of income is provided by illegal robot boxing matches so that he can pay off his loan sharks. Our story begins with a particular match going south, leaving Charlie utterly robot-less and $20,000 in debt. As he tries to head home, he’s sacked with yet another conundrum — his ex-girlfriend is dead and now he’s got an 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo) to feed and what have you. A couple of direct relatives want full custody of Max, but don’t like the concept of having him play third wheel at their second honeymoon. They pay Charlie $100,000 to look after his son for two weeks before they part ways — preferably forever.
But, in the grand scheme of cinematic convenience, Max has a knack for mechanics and follows the Robot Battle Circuit with religious devotion. While looking for spare parts, the two of them come across an old model of a sparring bot and Max insists that they unleash him in the underworld of robo-cockfights. Initially, Charlie refuses, but this particular robot has been implemented with a shadow function — which is to say that he can perfectly mimic the actions of specific targets placed in front of him.
If the first thing you’d do is teach him all the dance moves from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, I’ll have to kindly ask you to get out of my head.
Eventually, Charlie “teaches” their bot — named Atom, but pronounced Adam — all his best moves and manages to make it into the pro-fighting circuit. They deem Zeus — the biggest, shiniest and most technologically advanced bad-ass bot in the world — as their main target, and a final, climactic battle between man and machine is waged. Except they’re both machines.
As it’s pretty much a big, goofy family film aimed just as much at today’s kids as it is at yesterday’s kids, it’s very hard not to like this film. The robots are pretty cool and the fights aren’t frequent enough to become tedious. As a tonally congruent treat, the villains are all appropriately sinister and graduated from the Julliard School of Overacting.
Hugh Jackman is a charismatically self-destructive gambler and, somehow, you can’t help but love him for it. Saddle him with a smart-ass kid that he doesn’t like, give them a one-ton robot to pal around with, and you’ve got yourself sheer entertainment. Real Steel knows what it is, but does what it does with plenty of heart. It’s no exaggeration when people call it “Rocky with robots.”
But the kid himself might bring the party down for some. One way to put it best is to say that both the manner in which he’s written along with his acting style seem to come straight out a sitcom. Now, that might pique your interest, or it might cause your interest to shoot itself in the head. Granted, it doesn’t detract from the movie because you’re constantly thinking about pushing him down the stairs, a la Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, but I can see how he’d grate on people’s nerves a bit.
Naturally, there’s a clear separation between critics that will look past the formulaic plot of Real Steel, and those who’d readily push their glasses up the bridge of their nose and verbally tear this movie apart. Yes, it’s formulaic, but so was, Cinderella Man and pretty much anything that came after Rocky. You want something that’s not formulaic? How about this: during the final battle with Zeus, the ceiling caves in and everybody dies. It’s just how tropes work in this genre, and you can either accept whatever spin they put on it, or you can jump up and down with rage, like some kind of monkey-man intellectual.
The truth is that it’s in how much effort is brought to the table, and how many robots pervade your attempts at pop-art that matters. In this case, we get a decidedly fresh, science fiction take on things, and for the most part, it works.
In another classic example of completely missing the point, it could be said that watching Hugh Jackman “fiddle with a controller” holds no sense of tension. In that respect, anyone who has ever played a heated match of Tekken, Mortal Kombat, or any fast-paced video can easily attest that there’s more that’s going on than any meager “fiddling.” Take that assertion, switch out the virtual avatars for thousand-pound fighting robots, and have a man hold a gun to your head threatening to break your legs if you mess up. With that in mind, watching Hugh Jackman sweat over hitting the right buttons suddenly carries a lot more weight.
So in other words, big kids will love it, and actual kids will fight their own grandmothers for the action figures this Christmas.
If you can enjoy stupid entertainment that houses plenty of heart and shiny robots in equal abundance, then there’s no doubt that you’ll find yourself at the very least entertained. You won’t have to do any thinking, but you’ll definitely enjoy yourself.
It’s worth mentioning that this was probably the first film in a while where the previous viewers were still geeking out about it in the public restroom. As I was doing my thing at the urinal, I noticed an especially passionate kid who was venting his excitement to a complete stranger who had just left a bathroom stall.
“I just saw Real Steel! It was awesome!” he said as he swung his arms around, trying to shadow box. “That one robot was so strong that he beat Zeus!”
The man listened patiently as he finished washing his hands, dried them off and turned to the boy.
“Yeah,” he said. “He totally kicked his ass.”