When it comes to embracing a movie as superficially stupid as Shawn Levy‘s Real Steel, liking to loving it is almost like going through the stages of grief. Watching talented performers like Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, and newcomer Dakota Goyo make you invest in the tale of a boy and his robot boxer does lead to denial (“wait, how can I like a Shawn Levy Movie about boxing robots?”), anger (“This movie is manipulative!”, bargaining (“it works in spite of itself”), depression (“maybe it’s just the state of the industry, that the bell curve has been so lowered that Shawn Levy makes better movies than most now.”) and acceptance. Real Steel works, and it works the audience over in a crowd-pleasing way.
- Written by: John Gatins (screenplay), Dan Gilroy (story) and Jeremy Leven (story)
- Director: Shawn Levy
- Starring: Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo, Anthony Mackie, Hope Davis, Kevin Durand
- Original Music by: Danny Elfman
- Cinematography by: Mauro Fiore
Charlie Kenton (Jackman) was once a contender, but boxing has changed in the distant future, and now he operates boxing robots in state fair and underground settings. He had a girlfriend that he got pregnant, and when she dies he’s left a son – Max (Goyo) – he wants nothing to do with. After basically selling the kid to Max’s aunt and uncle, Charlie’s stuck with the kid for the summer. And when Max finds a robot named Atom, Max wants to use the robot in boxing contests. Atom is an older model, but is built to take a beating and learns through “shadow mode” which involves repeating the actions of its owners. You’d never guess how far they can go with the bot.
- Utter Shamelessness: Though arguably the theme that drive the film (the idea that Atom works as a proxy for Max to grow to love his father) doesn’t hit you over the head, virtually everything else is spelled in capital letters. When the first act happens it must show that Charlie is a mess of a person, and so he fails in really dumb ways. When the villains of the piece are introduced, they come close to having mustaches to twirl, and when the rich uncle gives Jackman money he’s wearing an ascot. But after a while that the film is written in capital letters works for the film. It’s a formula picture, but it squeezes everything out of that formula to get you invested in the material, but you always know where you are in the picture, and you anticipate the next victory or change of heart because of it.
- Hugh Jackman: Though Wolverine turned him into an A-lister, this is the first film since X-Men where Jackman gives a real star performance. The film rests on his shoulders, and it’s as if the material was tailor-made for his strengths. And his transformation from self-centered prick to loving father works because he’s fully committed to it.
- Dakota Goyo: When introduced to this little moppet, you immediate get Jake Lloyd-chills as he looks exactly like the sort of child actor who doesn’t know how to act so much as deliver poorly written bon-mots. But the kid is good, and he works well off of Jackman.
- The Robot Fights: With a mix of practical and CGI effects there is always weight to what’s happening on screen, and that it looks mostly real (only early on, when Jackman’s character has a robot fighting a bull, does the CGI stick out painfully) makes you invest in the reality of metal hitting metal. Where often effects-driven movies feel weightless because of the sheer amount of CGI, here you get characters reacting believably to the spectacle around them.
It is what it is: All Real Steel wants to do is entertain you, but it does so by building cliches into characters, and it follows the boxing movie structure that was laid out by Rocky. There is very little happening under the surface, and it offers little commentary on anything. But with so many movies (especially this summer) offering empty spectacle and with so many filmmakers preferring to beat you over the head with “cool” it’s great to see a film that gets to the heart of why it’s fun to go to a popcorn film. This is good trash.
Like the underdog movies that it emulates, Real Steel feels like a film worth defending – albeit with the caveat that it is exactly what you paid for. But that in itself is an accomplishment. It’s not a film where you have to apologize for the parts that don’t work, it doesn’t fall apart in the third act, and it doesn’t set itself up as a franchise to the point that it doesn’t feel like a complete thought. This is what Hollywood entertainment should be like: rousing, involving, with heart and a compelling story and performers.