Review: Real Steel
PLOT: Ex-boxer Charlie Kenton has a problem. Not only does he owe too much money due to bad bets on robot boxing, his ex-girlfriend has died leaving him with their eleven-year-old son Max. Thankfully, the ex’s sister wants the boy, and he wants to get rid of him. After making a deal with the sister’s husband, Charlie takes his son for the summer. Max, while at first resentful of his father, begins to appreciate the wild life his dad leads. He soon becomes involved in the rough and tumble world of robot boxing with a robot that he discovers named Atom. Plus, a bunch of robots beat each other to an oily pulp!
REAL STEEL is an action-packed, heart and soul fueled drama with terrific performances from Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly and a breakthrough performance by Dakota Goyo. It also features a lively soundtrack featuring Eminem, Beastie Boys and Tom Morello with an understated yet impressive score by Danny Elfman. Between this and THE IRON GIANT, robots may well be the next “man’s best friend.” This sci-fi flick plays on reality as well as it does on the fantasy. ROCKY with Robots? You betcha, and it works!
Based on a short story by Richard Matheson (which also inspired THE TWILIGHT ZONE episode “Steel”), this is more a human drama than anything else. To be exact, this is a father and son torn apart and brought back together drama that features a sci-fi premise. The film begins with an unlikable loser named Charlie Kenton (Jackman) who is looking for an easy break by recycling robots and betting on them to fight in the ring. However, Charlie doesn’t seem to know a good thing when he has one. This would include a relationship he had long since abandoned, including a son he never sees. When the boy’s mother dies, Charlie is ordered to court to help decide where the eleven-year-old would finally call home. This leads to one of the most touching father/son relationships we’ve seen in awhile.
When the boy’s Aunt Debra (Hope Davis) and her husband Marvin (James Rebhorn) arrive, Charlie tells Marvin that he would easily give up his son for the right price. A pathetic dad if there ever was one, right? While he may be horrified, Marvin agrees on one condition, Charlie will take Max (Goyo) for the summer. For this, the robot jock will receive a large sum of money. After disappearing from his young son’s life, there is much catching up to do and of course, memories to be shared. Yet the script by John Gatins tackles what could have been a sappy family tale into an unexpectedly effective script. And aside from a couple of silly moments in the course of a montage, director Shawn Levy manages to balance everything right into the climactic battle.
This final clash of the robots is part of a long line of inspirational moments, including ROCKY and the recent WARRIOR. It is when young Max – who has taken rather well to his father’s world – puts a “sparring robot” that he discovered on the line. He hopes to prove that the underdog can be the hero – kinda like his long lost dad maybe? Absolutely! Thankfully for everyone, young Goyo is a good actor. The moments he shares with his on-screen dad are funny, heartbreaking and genuine. This most certainly wouldn’t have worked nearly as well had it not been for a fantastic father/son bond. It was also nice to see the growth between both characters as well.
Speaking of nice, I must take notice of the tough as nails, yet heart of an angel charms in Evangeline Lilly from the hit series "Lost." She is marvelous as a woman getting used to Charlie (a friend?) being so many miles away all the time. As mentioned, this is a human story set in the future, yet these characters make it feel all the more real. It is much easier to accept this strange new robot butt-kicking universe with Lilly and Jackman, let alone young Goyo.
As far as the look of the film goes, it is hard to imagine, but these fights are extremely impressive. So much so that you nearly forget about who is pushing the buttons behind them. The bots themselves are an extraordinary bunch. Noisy Boy, Zeus, Twin Cities, Midas, Metro and the rest of the steel bots are more than impressive on screen. Yet it is Atom – the underdog – who really steals the show. Atom works it big time with some crazy dance moves and his undying spirit. To conjure up as much emotion as REAL STEEL manages to do with robots punching it out, it is easy to forget how foreign the concept really is (especially if you are a huge fan of “Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots”).