Going into Real Steel, I expected a movie that 8-to-12-year-old boys would love; everyone else — not so much. Director Shawn Levy’s prior credits (including Night at the Museum and Pink Panther) involved some level of cheesiness, so I expected more of the same.
I also thought what a silly title. Is there such a thing as fake steel? Also, I find myself fighting the overwhelming urge to spell it as Reel Steel.
Well, I was somewhat correct about who will dig this flick. Young males will definitely love Real Steel. Anyone not in that demographic may be annoyed like I was by the heavy-handed schmaltz, emotional manipulation and over-the-top product placement, but in the end, the movie had the entire audience rooting for Atom, the boxing robot, to win the big match.
Backing up a bit, Real Steel’s beginning is kind of humdrum, and things aren’t very interesting until the kid comes into the picture.
The movie is set at some undetermined time in the future when human boxing has been outlawed, and people have turned to robot-boxing as the latest, greatest sports phenomenon. Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a former boxer who now patches up cast-off robots and enters them in fighting matches (which usually are losses).
Charlie also is a deadbeat dad whose world is flipped upside down when the kid is basically dropped in his lap after the mother dies. There is an aunt (Hope Davis) willing to adopt him, but her wealthy older husband (James Reborn) brokers a side deal that Charlie will take care of his son for $100,000 while the aunt and husband spend the summer in Italy.
Charlie wants little to do with Max (Dakota Goyo), until he turns out to be a robot-fight lover like his dad. While hunting for parts, they stumble upon an old robot, and Max decides to keep him and turn him into a fighter.
Atom, as he is named, is smaller than the typical fighting robots, but Max sees something special in him. Max convinces Charlie to train Atom and put him in the ring.
I felt emotionally manipulated with all the father/son bonding. The point was definitely to transform Jackman from jerk to nice guy, and Jackman does a decent job with a mostly unlikable character.
Charlie does a have love interest, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), who helps rehab the robots. Don’t expect much from this clichéd storyline. It felt forced and added as an afterthought. The real love story is between father and son.
Now about those robots — they aren’t as advanced as, say, the Transformers bots, but they can do some cool stuff. They can’t talk and they’re completely controlled by the humans using video game-like equipment. Even though they don’t talk, the robots do have distinct personalities.
Real Steel has some crowd-pleasing moments and, like any sports flick, encourages the audience to root for the underdog (in this case, it’s Atom).
Between Hugh Jackman, a cute kid and boxing robots, Real Steel makes an attempt to have something that will appeal to everyone. It’s solidly entertaining, but I still maintain my original assertion that this is a flick that only boys will love. ••
Movie Grade: B-