Real Steel, directed by Shawn Levy, is about an estranged father and son who learn to bond with each other through the medium of boxing robots. It’s the year 2020 and robots have replaced humans as the gladiators in the boxing ring. Former boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is unsuccessfully trying to make ends meet financially by fighting with “has-been” robots. He’s full of disdain for the industry that essentially put him out of a job, owing debts to some unscrupulous folks left, right and center.
Charlie, however, finds out that the mother of his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) has just died and her sister-in-law Debra (Hope Davis) wants custody of Max. Charlie is completely disinterested in him but seizes the opportunity to make money out of Aunt Debra by giving Max up to her for a price. They strike up a deal that involves Charlie taking Max home for the summer first while she’s away on holiday.
While it may not seem like it based on the above snippet, Real Steel has a surprisingly deep plot. The fights don’t drive the narrative, the relationship between Charlie and Max does. When they first meet, father and son are perfect strangers. But when Max discovers and falls in love with Atom, a discarded robot in a junk yard, father and son become one.
Atom is more than just a fighting robot; he is also a very clever plot devise. He firstly allows Charlie to relive his best days at the height of his career as a boxer. We learn from Charlie’s ex-flame Bailey (Evangeline Lily) that Charlie used to be a beautiful fighter. He never won but that wasn’t the point, he would still give it everything he had despite being the overwhelming underdog. Atom, being a sparring robot, was built to fight in exactly the same manner as Charlie — designed to never give up and to keep coming back for more. Atom also becomes a quasi-father figure to Max; as Max wasn’t around to see his dad in his boxing hey-day, through the robot and his father’s subsequent revitalization, he’s now able to relive what he’d missed out on.
The characterization of Max was a pleasant surprise. He was so much more then the cookie-cutter, cutesy child we see so often in films. Although his dad was absent for most of his life, Max was an extremely emotionally intelligent child. As a result, a strange dynamic developed between Max and Charlie — Max was more like the adult in the relationship and Charlie was more like the child. And it was Max who demonstrates to Charlie through his actions what’s really important in life (i.e., love and to believe and be there for a person (or machine) through thick and thin).
Credit should also be given to Jackman for his handling of Charlie. On paper he’s distinctly unlikeable, yet the audience will still find themselves rooting for him; he channels the persona of Mel Gibson in his early career — he can pretty much get away with anything because it was delivered with a certain charm. (It was also helpful that since Max took his brush offs with a pinch of salt and forgives him, so can we). In addition, I was happy to see Kevin Durand (Lost) being given the slightly more meaty bit part of Ricky. I really don’t think it will be long now before he works his way up to the leading role he deserves.
As to be expected in a movie about boxing robots, the story line was a bit far-fetched in places — it’s a bit unbelievable that an adult let alone a kid would have been able to drag a huge robot up a hill (which is what Max had to do to save Atom from the scrap yard). Movies of this ilk (family bonding) are usually swathed with a “cheese factor” (of which I have a phobia); Real Steel manages to steer clear of it for most of the show, that is until about 20 minutes before the end. It’s not so bothersome that it completely ruins the previous 100 minutes or so, but it is a decided letdown.
Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure that like me, there are plenty of potential viewers out there who will underestimate the strength of Real Steel (the trailers do the film no justice). If, however, it is given a fighting chance, I’m confident it will win viewers over (just like it did with me).