Real Steel is a throwback film. It is retro filmmaking, in a good way. Some could call it an homage to 80s underdog flicks, others might say that it is a traditional story archetype, using themes that have worked for years. In other words, it isn’t exactly an original plot, but it still works. From the first five minutes of Real Steel, you have a pretty good idea what will happen throughout. It is a simple film, with simple concepts, supported by good action, solid acting and timeless themes. Putting aside the flashy robots, it is nothing you haven’t seen before, but it also takes the familiar and does it very well.
There is a reason that underdog stories work so well. The 80s especially were littered with them, and in almost any movie featuring a competitive event of any kind—whether it be about, say a kid learning karate, an undersized boxer with a heart of gold, or a kid skiing to save the rec center from being turned into a strip mall!—the idea is the same. It doesn’t even have to be about sports, just competition.
Those days have changed, and while the theme is universal and eternal, most filmmakers feel the need to add what they see as twists and layers to what is already a proven formula. Sometimes it works, sometimes it takes away from what works. Real Steel is more straightforward than that, and the result is an inoffensive movie that is hard to hate, driven by the charisma of Hugh Jackman and the surprising talent of Dakota Goyo as the boy who finds a robot…and a father. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.
Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One
This plot synopsis is going to be easy: Take every underdog film with a fighting background from the 80s, and you have Real Steel. Charlie Kenton (Jackman) is an all-around loser. A former pro boxer, his fighting days are long past and he is continually creating new holes for himself in order to try to dig himself out of previous ones. When an ex-girlfriend of his dies and the custody of his son Max (Dakota Goyo) draws him to court, he sees an opportunity to make some cash.
After cutting a private deal with Marvin (James Rebhorn), the husband of Max’s aunt Debra (Hope Davis) who is petitioning for custody, Charlie takes $50K to look after Max for the summer while his new folks head to Europe, but Charlie agrees to relinquish all paternity rights. He then immediately tries to pawn the tike off on Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), a gym owner, longtime friend of Charlie and on-again-off-again love interest. Max is not amused.
Max is a smart kid and understands that he was kind just slightly sold. He is, however, a big fan of the fighting bots, and convinces Charlie to let him tag along to watch him compete in robotic boxing events. Charlie grudgingly accedes. Following a disastrous fight they end up at a robotic junk yard, scavenging for pieces to try and put together a new robot, when Max discovers Atom.
Atom is the ultimate underdog. He is an obsolete fighting robot that was built as a sparring partner, which means that he was designed to take a massive amount of punishment and still keep coming–just like any good underdog. And while it may seem odd to call a robot “him,” Atom is essentially a metal Rocky.
Atom soon begins fighting on the lowest tiers of the robot world, but quickly displays talents–including speed and the ability to take a whoopin’–which when paired with Charlie’s fighting knowledge, make Atom a contender. That of course, leads Atom, Charlie and Max on a collision course with Zeus, the ultimate fighting bot and reigning champion. But not before valuable lessons are learned and people grow, etc., etc.
The plot of Real Steal basically takes all of the best underdog movies of the 80s, then picks and chooses the plot points that work best. And while that doesn’t make for the most original of films, it does lay the groundwork for a movie that appeals to a wide spectrum of people. It is also helped immensely by the performances of the stars, especially Hugh Jackman.
In This Corner…
Charlie Kenton is an ass. He is a character that is nearly unlikeable at the start of the movie, and it is hard to sympathize with his numerous problems, mainly because they are a result of his own brashness and foolish decisions. When Max is introduced, it is hard to root for Charlie, because he treats the kid like an inconvenience.
It would be easy to write the character of Charlie off, even though you know a redemption awaits him. What saves it, and therefore justifies the entire movie, is the performance and charisma of Jackman.
Everyone in the film is well cast and adds something—from Lilly’s small but crucial and memorable turn as Bailey, to Anthony Mackie as Finn, a player in the underground robot fighting world and partial friend to Charlie—but the weight of the film rests on Jackman’s shoulders, and he is up to the challenge. His growing relationship with Max, which in turn awakens the man he was, is key to the enjoyment of the movie. Even though it has been done a thousand times, there is a real heart to this movie that takes the robots and the fantastic aspects of the world of Real Steel and grounds it.
There are two distinct plot threads in Real Steel: The underdog tale of a robot fighter and his down-on-their luck operators, and the personal redemption of Charlie. You will know that both are coming from the first minutes of the movie—or even just the trailers—but they still are both fun to watch.
Goyo’s Max is also a pleasant surprise, and he and Jackman have solid chemistry together which makes their personal arc more convincing. It is also through the eyes of Max that we are introduced into the world, and given the details we need to understand it.
Real Steel is set in the near future, so things are mostly the same as they are now, with subtle differences. Cell phones are clear, and computers are touchscreen-based holographic projections. There are even little shout outs to possible future products, like the Xbox 720, and slightly futuristic looking cars that are original but wouldn’t be too out of place in our world. Oh, and there are giant robots beating the crap out of each other for sport.
There are enough similarities that you can accept the world of Real Steel without needing lengthy exposition to explain it. It’s the future, robots fight for sport, and people are still people. That’s about all you need to know.
For a movie about things that don’t actually exist in the real world, Real Steel’s effects are more than up to the task. One of the main characters is a beat up robot that never speaks, so his entire personality has to be told through movement and details that are created mostly in a computer. It is always a risky proposition to place such emphasis on something that is entirely effects driven, but the CGI is well designed, and you will soon buy into the robot as a character.
Everybody loves a good underdog flick, with clearly defined good guys and bad, and it is hard to not like a character redemption arc where someone learns valuable life lessons and such. Throw on a visually impressive side filled with robots doing awesome things, and you have a hit. Having a A-list star in Hugh Jackman at the top of his game doesn’t hurt either. Real Steel may be a grown up version of rock-em-sockem-robots, but it is a good one that will appeal to a lot of people.
Real Steel is a familiar and safe movie, filled with clichés and plots you have heard a thousand times. But the unique gimmick of the robots, the performances of its stars and the effects that sell the underdog story through a robot avatar all work well. The story may not shock you, but it won’t need to because it is a proven commodity that is put together extremely well. Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum series, Date Night) has made his career with films that aren’t exactly challenging, but are designed to reach a wide audience, and that is what he has done with Real Steel—his best film to date, and an overall good movie.