Real Steel, simply put, is tons of fun. There’s decidedly more substance here than in the brainless rock ’em sock ’em excitement of this year’s Transformers 3. The distinction here is that Real Steel has the benefit of having significant human drama to compliment the grandeur and action on screen and that makes this story work. Moreover, it is funny, endearing, inspirational and better crafted than you might expect. That said, as this is the story of an unlikely hero it’s perfectly appropriate that Shawn Levy, a bit of an underdog himself, can bring us something fun and exciting to cheer for with lots of heart…and with robots no less.
Down on his luck has-been boxer Charlie has certainly seen better days. Once a top notch fighter in his younger years, the sporting world has cast him and other competitors out in favor of some grander entertainment: robot boxing. As a result, high profile pugilism became a sport only for those competitors of the metal persuasion. Yet in the world where these mystifying technological marvels exist, they too, in time, became so abundant that many have become so passe these mighty giants are reduced to cheap roadside attractions and travelling fairs. Scratching out a living and among all his current hardships Charlie is now handed a real haymaker. He now must look after his 11 year old son Max following the death of his long since split from ex-girlfriend. But Charlie who has a pension for being stubborn and rough around the edges finds that with Max, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. After Charlie’s last shot at the profession ends tragically all too soon, Max finds Atom (an old sparring robot) in a junk yard and father and son set out to win fights and get to know each for the first time.
Over the course of the film, the relationship between Charlie and Max grows from being rocky (boxing pun not intended) to symbiotic and ultimately very sweet at times. It’s not exactly forced, even though their bonding is predictable, but you’ll enjoy the ride because of the other elements at play. What is a nice, almost beyond sci-fi, fantastical element is the inferred soul in this fighting bot. It’s not played up, even persuaded against but kids in the theater will just gravitate to Atom’s glowing eyes and, like Max, really believe there’s more to Atom than just hydraulics and copper wiring.
It goes without saying that beyond the draw of awesome looking boxing robots, the human element it is the soul of the movie. Dakota Goyo (Max) and Hugh Jackman (Charlie) have really great chemistry that looks like they had as much fun bantering on screen as they did off it. For someone who has the reputation for being the absolute nicest guy in Hollywood it’s still odd to see Jackman play a character with a very gruff demeanor (something he picked up from X-Men’s Logan) but it doesn’t last long as the impossibly adorable Goyo wins him and the audience over. These characters are highly likable and that gets you on board pretty quickly in the film.
Evangeline Lilly, while she isn’t really necessary, has a great knack for bringing warmth to the screen almost instantly which is good because she has very little screen time. Most of the supporting cast is really over the top (especially Kevin Durand) which makes sense in a film like this and helps sell the story. The WRB (World Robot Boxing) League and the lesser publicized (read: underground) boxing circuits are essentially a mix of the WWF and NASCAR so it pays for everyone to have an almost cartoony, colorful and theatrical persona. Even Tak Mashido, played by Karl Yune, the brains behind the WRB heavyweight champion Zeus (and who looks like the winner of the Asian James Franco look alike contest) and Farra Lemkova his billionaire financier come off entirely comic book-ish though equally one-dimensional.
Even though there are the typical fighting montages that show Atom’s progress, Real Steel is funny, has lot and lots of heart and is able to appeal to kids and adults without being overly hokey. To help keep emotions high, Danny Elfman brings a lot of weight to the film as well as he chimes in with his signature brand of tunes that really pull at your heartstrings and you, like I sure did, might find it difficult not to stay in your chair once Atom, Max and Charlie start winning more and more fights.
Much to his credit (though he may have enlisted some help from producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis) what Levy does is tell a fun, energetic and fantastic story that is ripe with morals and successful character arcs. It also has more outright nods to Rocky than you can count and that should make the fathers in the audience extremely giddy alongside their kids. What’s great is that Real Steel appeals to anyone who likes to root for the underdog and even more so gives kids who either don’t know Rocky or didn’t grow up with him, the best parts of all 6 movies in one sitting. I think the story line kind of goes something like Rocky 5, some more Rocky 5, Rocky 1, Rocky 6, Rocky 3, Rocky 1, Rocky 4, Rocky 3 and finishes with…well don’t let me spoil it for you.
While it could have used a little less exposition and few more fights once Atom got to the big show, Real Steel is still an uplifting film and works because of its equal parts comedy, character chemistry and crowd pleasing story. This must really be the year for rousing and inspirational pugilist (or otherwise) inspired stories as Shawn Levy’s movie is one that kids and adults will be able to enjoy. Further, I just have to say that I didn’t expect to have such a good time. Packing punches as big as its heart, Real Steel is tons of fun. Undisputed up til now, it’s the best (and my favorite) family movie of 2011.