Like all good boxing movies, Real Steel knows how to throw a punch, hitting you right in the solar plexus with the tale of Charlie and Max, two underdogs struggling to reach the top but coming up short. It’s a family movie about an estranged father and son, both too scared to admit what they need isn’t money or fame but love. It's a movie about the little guys for the little guys, the losers, the also-rans and the has-beens who get a second shot at the big time through a lot of heart and moxy and 1,000 pounds of scrap metal.
Director by Shawn Levy, Real Steel is about desperate people united by the love of the game, and that game just happens to be robot boxing.
Based on the Richard Matheson short story “Steel” (and the subsequent Twilight Zone adaptation), Real Steel is set in a near future where Americans still attend rodeos and state fairs. Instead of cattle roping, however, there's robot boxing, which is precisely what it sounds like: two robots, operated from the sidelines by human handlers, fighting each other. Our eye into this world is Charlie Kenton (played by a buff Hugh Jackman), a loser in every sense of the word; he’s a failed human boxer who became an even worse robot boxer. If you need any more proof of how low he’s fallen, we are introduced to him as he punches a cow in the face with his robot as part of a cow-versus-robot fight at a Texas fair -- and he loses. Making a bet on the match with the fair's fight promoter Ricky (Kevin Durand), Charlie takes off two steps ahead of him and a line of others he's in debt to.
Receiving word that his ex-girlfriend, and mother of his child, has died, Charlie proves he's also the world’s worst father as he shows up at court just so he can hand over custody rights to the kid’s aunt and uncle (Hope Davis and James Rebhorn). Upon learning they're rich, however, Charlie cons the uncle into giving him money in exchange for taking the child on for a summer before turning his son over to them for good. The deal is made, the aunt is oblivious, and the uncle delivers the kid and his half of the money the next morning.
That’s when we meet Charlie’s son Max, played by Dakota Goyo. With his wide baby blues, tousled blond hair and adorable freckles, Max is the epitome of the wholesome all-American kid -- until he opens his mouth. Where any other movie would portray Max as a wide-eyed innocent trying to win his father’s affection, Real Steel depicts the boy as every inch as belligerent and cocky as his dad, a scowling thundercloud with the mouth of a trucker (a PG-13 trucker, but a trucker nonetheless). Within his first minute on screen, Max attempts to extort money from Charlie before stealing his keys to ensure his father doesn't leave him behind.
Having no alternative, Charlie takes Max to a shady underground robot-boxing arena before dragging Max to an even shadier junkyard to look for robot parts. There Max discovers Atom, an old sparring robot, and takes a shine to it. Rescuing and repairing the behemoth, Max demands his father let him enter Atom in a boxing match. Although initially against it, Charlie is drawn in by Max’s enthusiasm, and the two slowly begin to experience success for the first time as they climb the tournament ladder.
The relationship between Charlie and Max is the heart and soul of Real Steel, and this pairing of loser dad and sarcastic son is where the movie really takes off. Theirs is a relationship characterized by bribes, threats and spontaneous acts of affection. Charlie is a horrible father, and Max is a cocky kid, but as they work together to program Atom they become something greater. In boxing-movie terms, Charlie and Max function as each other’s coach and trainee: Charlie teaches Max the ropes of robot boxing; Max teaches Charlie restraint and responsibility.
Of course, there are also robots punching each other in the face.
Dear lord, are there robots punching each other in the face, and you love every steel-pounding, hydraulic-busting, metal-twisting minute of it. Robot boxing is a sport that combines boxing with the best of the WWF: It has all the showboating and insults of professional wrestling, flowing seamlessly into the upper cuts and jab combinations of boxing. This movie should take home awards just for its transitions between the robot puppets and the CG creations, as it's impossible to tell when they switch from practical to computer effects. The cinematography from Mauro Fiore captures the fighting beautifully, the camera weaving with the robots, getting close enough to see the sparks fly before cutting to sweeping shots of the ring.
Hugh Jackman is simply phenomenal as charismatic loser Charlie. Any actor who makes you cheer as he punches a cow in the face with a robot -- have I mentioned that? -- is an actor well worth his salt. Jackman portrays Charlie, a character who should be absolutely despicable on paper, as a decent man who just doesn't know how to recover from the blows life has dealt him. Desperation lurks behind Jackman’s eyes, even when he’s coming out on top; Charlie is a man who only knows how to lose, and Jackman pulls off this heart-wrenching role with aplomb.
Helping Charlie along the way is Bailey, played by Lost star Evangeline Lilly. A combination of best friend, love interest and coach for Charlie, Lilly shines as the blue-collar owner of a struggling gym, fixing robots to make ends meet. She confidently takes all the best parts of her tough-girl persona from Lost and loses the awful sappiness that followed that role, creating a character as multilayered as Charlie and Max. Lilly soars when she argues with Jackman, and the best scenes are when she is coercing rent money from Charlie.
The real star of the DreamWorks release, however, is Goyo as Max, whom he plays as a boy just as desperate as his father. But while Jackman is hurting for money, Max is hurting for love. Goyo is absolutely hilarious, timing his outbursts and scowls with the expert air of a comedian twice his age. Max is a lonely kid but he’s also a gut-busting bundle of sarcastic wit and killer dance moves (the scene where he teaches a robot how to do the robot is amazing). Goyo has impeccable range, and holds his own against Jackman in every scene, not an easy feat even for adult actors.
There are problems, here and there, number one being how criminally underutilized Danny Elfman is as the composer. Most of the movie is soundtrack, not composition, and the only time you hear Elfman’s score is over the quieter moments of the film -- driving down a highway, looking out over a field of wheat, etc. Unfortunately, that score is so bland if I had not seen Elfman’s name in the credits I wouldn't have believed it was him.
As well, the film’s bad guys, famous robot-boxing owner Farra (Olga Fonda) and robot programmer Tak Mashido (Karl Yune) are enjoyable when they're not talking, but when they do speak it is in a torrent movie-villain cliches about shutting down the competition. There's also an uneasy sense of xenophobia around the movie as the bad guys are all foreigners with funny accents. At least I assume Fonda’s accent is foreign. Yune’s Japanese accent is passable, but I have no idea what nationality Fonda is channeling -- it sounds like a combination of all of them. The movie also tries too hard at points to make the robots react the way humans would when getting hit, and in hindsight as a geek it's weird to be cheering on a jock (Charlie) to take those hotshot computer nerds (Farra and Tak) down a peg or two!
Yet these few flaws don't at all detract from the solidly entertaining and often moving film. Real Steel earns every single laugh, every single tear, and every single gasp from its audience. It embraces sports movie conventions only to transcend them, each boxing sequence and dramatic moment building to make Real Steel something greater and more glorious than what has come before.
In many ways, the story of Atom and Max and Charlie is the story of the movie itself. Despite major studio backing, it's an underdog, a movie few have heard of and no one is expecting much out of. But give it a chance, give it a shot in the ring, and I promise you a movie the likes of which you’ve never seen before -- a film with so much action your pulse will race and so much heart it’ll rip you to pieces inside. Real Steel is the real deal, and this underdog proves it’s more than just a sci-fi boxing movie -- it’s a champion.
Real Steel opens Friday nationwide.