It’s good to remember that mainstream, crowd-pleasing movies don’t have to be bad. They usually are, mainly because the people who make them are lazy and assume audiences don’t care about quality, but they don’t have to be. There’s no law of cinematic physics which demands that an uplifting, family-oriented film has to be poorly made junk.They can be good, and Real Steel proves that.
If you’re surprised by that, you’re not alone. I was stunned to find myself not just enjoying Real Steel but really, truly liking the movie - liking it in the way that only the best-made, ingratiating films can pull off. Real Steel is expertly constructed and deftly executed, an example of what the behemoth of Hollywood filmmaking can accomplish if harnessed correctly.
Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a down on his luck former boxer who has made the transition to managing boxing robots. In the near future of 2020 robotic gladiators have replaced people in the ring, bringing a level of mayhem and destruction that appeases crowds in ways no flesh and blood fighter could. But even in the world of robot boxing Charlie is at the bottom of the heap, bringing his jerry-rigged mech to duke it out at rinky dink county fairs.
The film opens with Charlie in the back of his truck, waking up with some beer bottles next to his bunk. It seems like this is how the film will establish Charlie as a fuck up, and it feels pretty soft and uninteresting. But then the film takes a bold step, and Real Steel began its journey to fully winning me: it has Charlie’s robot, Ambush, fight a bull.
It’s the robot jocks version of bull-baiting, and it’s the sort of detail that gives Real Steel the feeling of a fully realized world. And it establishes Charlie as a degenerate in a good, strong way. Also, it’s cool seeing a robot punch a bull in the face. Who doesn’t want to see that?
The film’s plot takes off from there, when we learn that Charlie’s ex-girlfriend has suddenly died, and he’s being given custody of his eleven year old son, who he has never met. The film plays this smartly as well, with Charlie in a rush to sign off his parental rights to the boy’s rich aunt - for a substantial payout, that is.
Hugh Jackman has one payday role, Wolverine, but he seems to be always searching for the part that will take him to the level. Charlie feels like it could be that part. Unapologetically a rogue and a rake, Jackman uses his natural likability to keep Charlie from ever being a real deadbeat, but he’s not afraid to play in that area. Evangeline Lilly is his love interest, and they have a great, palpable chemistry. Sadly Lilly is given little to do besides cry and watch robot boxing on TV.
The son, Max, is played by Dakota Goyo, a child actor who brushes right up against the ‘too precocious’ ceiling without ever quite breaking through. The kid is bursting with charisma, and only a few of his scenes reek of shitty child acting; the assist comes in the script, by John Gatins (inspired by a Richard Matheson short story), which makes Max tough, smart and not cloying. The script wisely backs away from too many sappy, obvious emotional scenes, knowing that the best payoffs are little moments - and that the natural arc of a sports movie will bring plenty of emotional catharsis into the proceedings.
Through some plot rigmarole Charlie and Max end up with a new robot and out on the boxing circuit. It’s actually an old robot, a second generation boxer, and not even a real fighting bot - it’s a sparring machine, intended for practice and not real fights. But Max sees something in the machine, and they are soon winning illegal fights in abandoned zoos, in rundown warehouses and then eventually getting the attention of the professional big leagues.
The robot fights are all great; each one has a different feel and setting, and each opponent has a unique look and personality. The middle of the film, with Max and Charlie traveling the boxing circuit, feels like a particularly cool, old fashioned fighting video game, a Street Fighter with robots. The robot FX are top notch; I understand that sometimes the robots are real and sometimes CG, but beyond common sense (ie, when they’re moving around the ring exchanging blows they’re probably fake), I couldn’t really make out the difference. When Charlie’s first robot, Ambush, is introduced in the bull fight the way the sun plays on his frame is completely convincing - he’s in the environment.
Steven Spielberg has produced a lot of movies lately that are supposed to hearken back to his 80s Amblin heyday, but they always feel like cheap imitations at best. Real Steel gets it right, and in fact this is the ‘boy and his first car’ story that everybody pretended Transformers was. Max’s junker bot, Atom, is perfectly designed to be the ultimate lovable underdog, just anthropomorphic enough to sell a soul in his crooked eyes. This is a Spielberg robot - he’s not a war machine, he’s a faithful companion.
Shawn Levy is easily one of my least favorite directors working, and he’s been churning out soulless big Hollywood product for years now. Somehow he has shaken off the whorish malaise of the Night at the Museum films and created something great here. It’s human and sweet and funny and endearing. I never knew Shawn Levy had it in him, and it’s kind of exciting to be this surprised.
Real Steel works as a great family film and as a terrific sports movie (there are two endings to every sports movie, and Real Steel takes the path I like best, so I’m very biased on that), but it also is a strong science fiction film. Like the best scifi, Real Steel extrapolates forward based on what’s real today. The big change in 2020 is basically the fact that robot boxing exists. This isn’t a world of hovercars or space colonies, it’s just the world we know today with a couple of small changes.
Within that structure Real Steel gets to use the science fiction to explore some interesting stuff. There are class distinctions between the minor leagues and the big Robot Boxing League, and the movie makes no bones about them. But more than that the movie uses the scifi setting to really get into what makes sports competition - and often boxing, specifically - so satisfying: heart. It’s sort of like Moneyball in that it’s putting technical ability and organizational ability up against a scrappy spirit and decency. And it’s coming down hard on the side of heart.
Real Steel is Rocky with rivets; Charlie and Atom are explicitly mirror images of each other, used up and busted out junkers looking to prove themselves one last time. It’s Rocky Balboa vs Apollo Creed, rendering in the style of crashing metal and hydraulics. This is the best sports movie of the year, and it’s a triumph of accessible, mainstream filmmaking. I want to come back to the world of Real Steel and I want to revisit these characters; this film captured my imagination and heart as a geek in his 30s, and I suspect it will totally knock out an entire generation of kids.