Real Steel Review
Let’s be honest: no one really expected Real Steel to be a knockout. While leading man Hugh Jackman hasn’t exactly managed to carry a film unless walking around with adamantium in his body (arguably The Prestige aside), it’s the presence of director Shawn Levy, responsible for the Cheaper By The Dozen rehash and both Night At The Museums, that is the root cause of most apprehension. Add in a naff sounding plot line – long-lost father and son try to rebuild their relationship while competing in the world of robot boxing – and critics would have been scrambling to call this turkey done. And yet somehow, a half-decent film has managed to surface that might not win on points but is a worthy competitor nonetheless.
Set in a near-distant future, Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a washed-up boxer who no longer competes as a result of boxing robots taking over the ring and manages to eke out a living on the underground robot boxing circuit. Into his life comes his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) and after arranging a lucrative deal with Max’s uncle, Charlie agrees to take care of Max over the summer during which time the two uncover a fully-functioning robot, Atom, in a scrapyard and train it into a championship contender.
If you can’t already smell the cheddar coming from that synopsis, it’s worth noting now: Real Steel is unashamedly cheesy – like stinking bishop in celluloid form. That in itself probably won’t be a problem to most people going to see it, but it’s sometimes overpoweringly so. There’s only so many overblown soaring musical keys and slow-mo shots that one man can take and clocking in at over two hours, the film could leave the more cynical amongst you right on the edge of sanity. There’s always something in a underdog's tale that stirs the emotions though and, to that extent, Real Steel nails it; it’s just that it needn’t have used a cinematic sledgehammer to do it.
Its main problem though is that it’s far too long with the sub-plots generally pointless: Charlie’s problems with an underground promoter (Kevin Durand) seem to exist only to give the film the standard end of second act conflict to be resolved in the climax; while Charlie’s relationship with gym owner Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly) is undercooked nonsense with Lilly particularly embarrassing through no real fault of her own, given that the script paints her as a headstrong boxing fanatic who then seemingly has to melt in the presence of Jackman’s vast manliness whenever he comes calling. It all means that what is meant to be the film’s heart – and indeed, the film does shine when the focus is on the relationship between Charlie and Max – is frequently sidelined and also delays what we’ve really all come to see…robot-on-robot carnage.
Thankfully the effects are absolutely superb with the robots convincingly existing in the real world and with the action impressively staged by Levy and cinematographer Mauro Fiore, the boxing scenes are immense, crunching fun. They even make what otherwise could have been a disastrous scene, where Max teaches Atom to dance, bearable as you can just focus on the excellent effects that bring Atom to life. These robot scenes are undoubtedly helped by the presence of Dakota Goyo as the precocious Max who gives an energetic and likeable performance, frequently stealing the spotlight from the more established performers. This includes Jackman who suffers at the beginning as he’s required to be a down-and-out unlikeable loser essentially – this is a guy who leaves his child in a scrapyard alone all night – but as X-Men showed, he does grizzled so well and he wins us over come the end, even making the pretty sudden change of heart, which basically takes place over one scene, believable. Sometimes the scenes between the two veer towards the naff, such as when Max faces down a punk, but the two’s chemistry makes them entertaining.
And, if anything, the film certainly would have succeeded more had it taken more of this light-hearted tone throughout the piece; not a ‘so bad, it’s good’ approach as such, but erring towards naff rather than overbearingly corny and straight-faced. Still, there are merits to be found – the climactic arena scenes are particularly eye-catching on the big screen and undeniably thrilling – were you willing to overlook its numerous flaws, flaws which you probably expected going into the film regardless. Overall though, Real Steel is nothing more than a solid piece of entertainment that is occasionally diverting and delivered with a great technical panache. As combos go, that might not be as bad as people may have initially expected.