A film review by Craig J. Koban October 13, 2011


2011, PG-13, 126 mins.

Hugh Jackman: Charlie Kenton / Dakota Goyo: Max / Evangeline Lilly: Bailey / Anthony Mackie: Finn / Hope Davis: Deborah / James Rebhorn: Marvin / Kevin Durand: Ricky / Olga Fonda: Russian Robot Owner / Karl Yune: Tak

Directed by Shawn Levy / Written by John Gatins, based on the short story "Steel" by Richard Matheson

REAL STEEL commits many sins, but one of the oddest is that it combines some of the worst clichés and conventions from films like ROCKY and OVER THE TOP and mixes them with boxing robots that have replaced human beings in the near future.  Alongside the utter silliness of its premise is some eye-rollingly ham-infested melodrama involving a sentimental, heart-tugging story of a once estranged father and son coming together…via their mutual love of machine on machine combat.  It goes without saying that REAL STEEL is preposterous, but the film at least tries to be original.  Its chief problem, though, is that it's so mournfully contrived and scripted from the get-go; the screenplay is as artificially cobbled together as any of the pugilist ‘bots that populate it. 

REAL STEEL is amazingly based on a short 1956 story called STEEL by Richard Matheson (unread by me) and co-produced by the likes of Oscar winning filmmakers Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg.  It’s easy to deduce that the film essentially uses the basic idea from Matheson’s literary antecedent as a springboard to portray the spectacle of robots duking it out in the squared circle amidst a would-be touching and endearing father-and-son story of reconcilement.  The premise itself is, as stated, bizarre, but even more bizarre is how little actual dramatic resonance the film contains.  REAL STEEL is essentially more of a synthetic and manipulative construct than it is a really emotionally absorbing experience 

The year is 2020 and humans have been forced out of the boxing racket, for reasons never thoroughly or acceptably explained, other than in some painfully articulated expository dialogue that tries to offer an explanation.  Instead, society has falling in love with 2000-pound, eight-to-ten-foot tall automatons that are controlled, either by voice or through joysticks, by their human owners that all hope to score big paydays with each win.   One of these owner/operators is Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) a once up-and-comer boxer that had is career cut short.  Now, he hustles in illegal underground robot boxing matches to score some quick dough in order to pay off his various debts to loan sharks.   

While Charlie is on the run from those that would carve him into pieces to get their money, he learns of the death of his ex-girlfriend and that his 11-year-old son that he barely knows, Max (Dakota Goyo), is now caught in a legal conundrum as to whether he belongs with Charlie or his Aunt Debra (Hope Davis) and his very rich Uncle Marvin (James Rebhorn).  They want to adopt their nephew, but Charlie has legal rights to the boy, but he is not too morally righteous to refuse the $100,000 that he haggles out of Marvin for signing over custody rights.  There is one condition to their agreement: Charlie must look after Max for the summer while Debra and Marvin on are their honeymoon, to which he begrudgingly agrees.  He does not, however, want to have anything to do with the kid and vice versa. 

As father and son try to not verbally rip each other apart, Charlie has the dubious task of trying to find another bot for him to buy, clean up, and get back into the ring, seeing as he is indebted to several people.  One fateful night at a junkyard - while Charlie and Max rummage through spare parts - they accidentally come across an old, buried sparring robot affectionately named Atom (it’s written on its body).  Max wants to turn Atom into a contender, but the pragmatist in Charlie says that the idea is doomed to failure.  His on-again, off-again girlfriend and robot grease monkey, Bailey (the limitlessly photogenic Evangeline Lily) does help Max get the rusted hunk of gears and circuits back together.  Eventually, Atom gets into fighting shape and Max convinces Charlie to enter him in for some fights, and astoundingly the underdog Atom wins his first bout…then another…and then another…until he becomes a contender for robot supremacy against the champion, a monstrous Japanese creation called Zeus, that is undefeated. 



There is not one story thread or plot development in REAL STEEL that will come as any surprise to any viewer with a modest brain.  Gee, I wonder if father and son will bond on their journey to get Atom into the ring?  Hmmm, I wonder if Charlie will use his boxing skills to help train the programming of the bot?  Hey, I wonder if Atom will be severely tested in the ring versus Zeus and, at the last minute, pull together all of its intestinal – albeit mechanical – fortitude to pull off the mother of all upsets?  By the time REAL STEEL thunderously rolls by to its unavoidably predicable climax, I did more watch checking and head shaking than I perhaps should have. 

The film also left me asking a lot of questions that better films would have made me forget to ask.  Like, for example, how on earth could robots this size and this powerful not reduce each other to crunched up, oil covered piles of debris after just a few lethal blows?  How can a ‘bot like Atom be successfully revived after spending what looks like years under a tomb of rock, mud, and other unimaginable crap?  The robots themselves are controlled by humans, but are they self-aware? Do they think?  Have feelings?  Do they hate their opponents?  Do they like being slaves to the greedy motives of their human captors that are essentially using them for profit?  The film seems petrified of even dealing with the notion of A.I. and what it means to its universe.    

The robots at least are stunningly envisioned with a combination of CGI visual effects and state of the art animatronics and they do move and behave like human boxers (Sugar Ray Leonard served as a consultant for the film).  It’s to the film’s discredit, though, that the machines have more range of emotion and are more relatable than the one note human characters that populate the story.  REAL STEEL’s personas are not so much flesh and blood people as they are easily definable types: Charlie is the cocky and arrogant SOB that cares about money first and family second, but then learns to respect the latter as the film progresses; Max is the prototypical tech/computer smart kid with a wiseass mouth that shuns authority; Bailey is the girlfriend on autopilot that has to convince her stubborn man how to forget the past and learn to love in the present; and then there are Zeus’ handlers: an icy cold Russian babe with a eye for power and the filthy rich, unemotional, and engineering/business savvy Japanese creator that would rather commit a kamikaze act than see his creation lose. 

If I were, say, 9 or 10-years-old than I would most likely hail REAL STEAL as a masterpiece.  Alas, I am an adult critic with ample life and movie experience, so I can say that the film only succeeds, I guess, as a mass marketed and envisioned product.  Its director, Shaun Levy (who previously made the abortive PINK PANTHER remake and CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN, and not inspiring much confidence) knows how create an easily sellable film commodity that can engage young viewers in mindless and colorful spectacle.  REAL STEEL is not as offensively awful as, say, any of the TRANSFORMERS pictures, but it shares the same level of loud, crude, bombastic, and soullessly numbing action as those Michael Bay efforts.  In the end, REAL STEEL is just a dutifully mechanical concoction that superficially wows us with its spectacle, but bores us with its dull and conventional character relationships.  That, and the film just lacks a tangible heart.  Mr. Balboa, a more satisfyingly flesh and blood film creation, could teach the makers here a thing or two here.

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