Is it formulaic? Oh yes. Real Steel owes a great deal to the Rocky movies in its formula. It’s a (very) loose adaptation of the Richard Matheson short story “Steel” which appeared on The Twilight Zone in 1963. Elements of that story are still there, but mostly serves as the kernel of a new story entirely. The TZ story was more serious and depressing.
Anyway, you’ve got Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) as a former boxer turned robot boxer promoter. Backstory reveals that human boxing languished as robot boxing started, as mere humans couldn’t give the type of spectacle the fans wanted. Charlie reconnects with his son Max (Dakota Goyo) after Max’s mother dies. Charlie cynically sells away his rights to Max for enough money to continue robot boxing, only to lose again and again. Part of the deal is that Max stays with Charlie over the summer.
Charlie gets more than he bargained for with Max, as he’s a robot boxing fan and knows more about robots than Charlie. More than that, Charlie begins to care about his son as more than a moneymaking scheme. He’s alternately encouraged and chastened by Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly) who is the daughter of his deceased former boxing coach.
Every actor in this movie punches above his or her weight class. Hugh Jackman gives a typically great performance. He manages to portray a burned out loser who isn’t an idiot, but constantly does stupid things by impulse. I normally loathe child actors, but Dakota Goyo is a joy to watch. He’s precocious, but not annoyingly precocious, like too many child actors. He still shows expected, childish gaps in his knowledge. Evangeline Lilly is also wonderful. She doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but she packs a lot of heart in the few minutes she slips in and out. (On a personal note, I find her to be absolutely gorgeous, in a ‘girl next door’ kind of way.) Kevin Durand is hilariously great as the over-the-top heavy with an exaggerated redneck accent and sneering smile. (Compare it with his Brooklyn/Ukranian accent on The Strain. The guy’s got some range.)
(Side note: Sugar Ray Leonard advised the fight choreography.)
I would be amiss in not mentioning the Academy Award nominated robot effects in this movie. The effects people outdid themselves. The CGI interacts with the human actors
and practical effects in a well-choreographed and very believable fashion. Contrast it with the awful interactions in pretty much any Transformers movie and you’ll see that people who complain about too much CGI don’t understand. It’s not the effects–it’s how they’re used. Real Steel uses them like a maestro. You can easily fool yourself into thinking these robots are real.
The filmmakers show the science fiction elements of this near-future setting, but don’t cram them down your throat. Multiple, logical progressions of existing technology linger in the background. The obvious ones with the robots are still handled in a mundane enough manner to suspend disbelief.
I love all of the above, but the part that really ties it up into a bow is that this is a guy’s movie. No, not a guy’s movie–a father’s movie. This entire movie is love letter to fatherhood. So often these days fathers are mocked and/or shown to be shitheads or simply unnecessary. (“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”.) This movie does everything but put a banner in praise of fatherhood over the top of the screen. Fatherhood really matters in this movie and isn’t the least bit shy about showing it.
Are there predictable, cliched elements? Absolutely. But cliches become cliches because they work. If you have good writing, dialogue and heart, I don’t care if something has been done before. Real Steel has enough heart for two movies. I defy any man to not get a little misty-eyed during the Zeus shadow boxing. Go on, I dare you.
If you’ve never seen this movie–what are you waiting for?! Go find a copy and watch it! Immediately!