Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Shawn Levy
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand, Hope Davis, James Rebhorn.
Real Steel is essentially an adolescent boy’s fantasy movie about giant boxing robots. But thankfully it lacks the noise, chaos, extravagant visual effects and bombastic approach of Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogy. Real Steel offers a cross between the tough boxing action of Rocky 3 and the heartfelt father and son dynamics of The Champ. And even though it is a tad predictable, this is a vastly enjoyable and emotionally satisfying film with a superb payoff.
The film is set in the not too distant future world of 2020, where robot boxing has replaced human boxing matches. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman, from X-Men, etc) is a former boxer who never got a shot at becoming champion. Instead he operates a robot boxer and barely ekes out a living through scrappy bouts and low-end underground fights. But then Charlie is left to temporarily look after Max (Dakota Goyo who played the young Thor in the recent Thor), the estranged son he has never known.
The pair begin to bond over Atom, the scrappy old Gen 2 sparring-bot that Max rescues from a junkyard, and which looks like a refugee from The Iron Giant. Max urges Charlie to turn him into a fighter and the robot competes in a couple of illegal underground fights. Surprisingly Atom proves to be a winner that takes the pair all the way to Detroit and the World Robot Boxing championship. Atom is the underdog in a title challenge against Zeus, the ultimate, undefeated fighting robot owned by an ambitious Russian and programmed by an arrogant Japanese computer wizard.
The climactic bout is exciting as metal fists pound metal unmercilessly. While the boxing scenes are quite dramatic and exciting and get the adrenaline flowing, it is the father-son relationship that gives the story texture and emotional power.
The film has been adapted from Steel, a short story written by Richard Matheson (Duel, etc). The script has been written by John Gatins, whose credits include the sports themed films Coach Carter and Hard Ball, etc, along with Dan Gilroy (Two For The Money, etc). But I suspect that the emotionally moving elements of the story come from Jeremy Leven, whose scripts include the moving The Notebook, etc.
Jackman is excellent as the cocky but flawed and weary anti-hero Charlie who is seeking redemption, and his easygoing style and charisma wins us over. But the real find of the movie is the incredibly charismatic, confident and winning 12-year old Dakota Goyo, who carries the movie with his marvelously assured performance as Max. Evangeline Lilly (from Lost, etc) is good as Bailey, Charlie’s long-suffering friend, and potential love interest who reluctantly continues to support his dreams.
Director Shawn Levy is better known for his lame comedies (Cheaper By The Dozen, and the awful Pink Panther remake starring Steve Martin, etc), but here he seems to handle the human elements and the drama with assurance. The special effects, created by Tom Meyer (Jonah Hex, etc), that create the life like robots and give them fluid movement are first class. The robots are created through a clever mix of animatronics and motion capture CGI.
Real Steel has been produced by Steven Spielberg, and his usual deft touch and instinctive feel for solid entertainment is evident throughout.