By all accounts, “Real Steel” should be an utter failure.
It recycles plot points and themes from at least half a dozen ’80s films, it has a known hack director (Shawn Levy, he of the “Night at the Museum” films and the Steve Carell/Tina Fey disaster-that-shouldn’t-have-been “Date Night”), and its premise sounds utterly ridiculous: In the near future, a down-on-his-luck ex-boxer (Hugh Jackman) bonds with his estranged son … over a boxing robot.
Yes, a boxing robot.
But inexplicably, this movie, based very loosely on a Richard Matheson short story, became one of my favorite movies of the year (though I wouldn’t call it one of the best movies of the year).
I’ll caution you that if you’re about 90 percent certain in any other review to see the following cliches, so to ensure you don’t need to read any of those others, here are a few not-so-random words: Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, Transformers, Rocky, blah blah blah.
Here’s my best analogy, as specific as I can make it: “Over the Top” meets “Rocky III” meets any random robot movie, just because there are robots in it.
The story, a little more specifically: Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a washed-up boxer in a near future where human combat has fallen out of fashion. Instead, large robots square off, controlled remotely, video-game style, by humans. The pinnacle of the sport is the World Robot League. Charlie is on the opposite end of that continuum, scraping together every cent he can to keep his robot pasted together to engage in what seems to be the equivalent of dogfighting: boxing ‘bot vs. a bull. He owes money to more than one person who might be inclined to collect on debts with a baseball bat, if the debtor is lucky.
Charlie’s luck goes from bad to worse when he learns he had a son with a woman with whom he was involved years before. She died, leaving custody of the boy, Max (Dakota Goyo), up in the air.
The good news? The woman’s rich sister (Hope Davis) wants the kid, who is a cantankerous, stubborn little cuss. Charlie makes a deal with the sister’s husband (James Rebhorn), who sees the kid as an obstacle to his planned European summer vacation: Charlie takes the kid for the summer, and in exchange, he gets $100,000. After the summer is over, Charlie will sign over custody of the boy to them.
His plan for the money is to buy another ‘bot at a bargain, which will hopefully make him more money. When that doesn’t work out, he finds himself stuck with a son he doesn’t understand, no money and loan sharks circling, including cowpoke Ricky (the marvelous Kevin Durand, intimidating and scary even with a ludicrous Southern accent).
Then Max discovers a tiny robot literally in a junk heap, and Charlie recognizes it as a broken-down old sparring bot, designed to take punishment but not really able to deliver any real damage himself. Or so Charlie thinks.
This plucky never-was is dubbed Adam, and Max takes him in like a stray puppy, determined to get him a fight. Surprise of all surprises, he wins, and he becomes something of an underground celebrity thanks to his “shadow” capability; with the flip of a switch he can be trained to mimic the movements of his owner.
Soon Adam, Max and Charlie draw the attention of the owners of Zeus, the WRL champion whose opponents can’t even last a round, much less defeat him (though they missed a golden opportunity by not nicknaming Zeus the “Robotic Wrecking Machine”).
Goyo is the latest in a line of effective child actors and holds his own with Jackman, playing a character who early on is totally unlikable (I mean, the guy did sell his own son), and the film crafts an engaging story of redemption on multiple layers across multiple characters. Like Adam, Charlie and Max both are pulled out of the scrap heap and thrust together, and the three of them band together to find the unlikeliest of successes.
The ‘bot fighting scenes are pretty stellar, using a combination of CG and animatronics. The scenes are “Rocky”-esque, hardly believable compared to real boxing, but then again, these are robots we’re talking about, and “Steel,” I daresay, offers as exciting a boxing scene as anything Stallone has done.
Jackman provides the movie’s heart and soul, its immoral center gone good, and he has surprisingly good chemistry with Evangeline Lilly, who plays the daughter of Charlie’s trainer — the role of both Adrian and Mickey at the same time. Though those bits are poorly integrated into the film, as if Lilly suddenly had intermittent availability to throw her into a few scenes, they’re fine, if a bit cliched, as standalone scenes that somehow work.
In a movie full of father-son bonding and sports-movie cliches, and despite Levy’s heavy-handed direction (there are several bits that are poorly explained in the context of it being science fiction), “Steel” is a compelling, fun, inspiring tale that whisked me back to the day when I rooted for a certain Italian American pugilist to catch the eye of the tiger, beat down that Russian and beat down that Mr. T. Then I looked over at my son as he watched, his fists clenched and his eyes wide, flinching and ducking as Zeus throws punches at Adam and seeing his eyes widen when Adam responds, and I knew something was right.
It’s a simple film with simple heroes, but “Real Steel” is what cinema is all about.