In director Shawn Levy’s Real Steel, hulking robots fight each other in back alleys and sports arenas as raving crowds cheer them on. It’s fast-paced and exciting, and certainly takes advantage of a large special effects budget. However, if you’re looking for a film with a little depth and a little soul, you’ll be disappointed by this film’s impenetrable steel exterior.
The blending of science fiction and fantasy makes the robots more interesting than the human characters in the film. I don’t know if this flaw can be attributed to the film’s concept, which I think is a tad overzealous in its spirit of fun, or to the filmmakers, who were clearly influenced more by their appeal to audiences in hope of making a quick buck than by actual storytelling.
There’s no denying the technical merits of this movie, but more to the point, there’s no doubt that it’s more a cash cow that will inspire a very marketable line of toys and action figures. That’s perfect timing, too–seeing that the holidays are just around the corner.
Loosely adapted from Ricahrd Matheson’s short story, “Steel,” the film takes place in the future in which specially designed robots have replaced humans as boxing champions. People have grown tired with ordinary human matches; they now want to see figters tearing each other apart. This is pivotal to the short story, which comments socially on people’s growing tolerance for violence and destruction. So bring in the robots, which by definition have no legal rights and are unburdent by any sense of morality. You can break as many as you like, as another one can always be built.
A routine, predictable, and sometimes unpleasant plot populated by characters the audience feels nothing for quickly overshadows any social commentary in the film, however. At the heart of the story, though, lies Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), in his heyday a boxing contender, but now a base, economically desperate promotoer of low-grade robot fighters. When he isn’t making poor decisions on bets or black market robot purchases, he tries to woo his old flame, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), the daughter of a boxing coach who once had Charlie under his wing. She finds that she can’t make her monthly payments on her father’s old gym. This is mostly Charlie’s fault; he hasn’t been paying Bailey his rent.
He suddently gains custody of his hardened, technically-incined 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), whose mother, Charlie’s long forgotten ex-girlfriend, has died (did you get all that?). Despite having no previous relationship with the boy, and wanting nothing to do with him, Charlie agrees to take Max for the summer. However, it’s because it will benefit him financially. He begins by blackmailing the wealthy husband (James Rebhorn) of Max’s aunt (Hope Davis) for $100,000, half of which will be delivered when Charlie’s services will no longer be needed.
It becomes clear that the film will be in large part a father/son bonding story. I am forced to question the logic of bringing them together through robot fighting, though, specifically Charlie’s shady dealings within it. It isn’t long before Max is making bets of his own with some very dangerous people; this is innately unfunny, but Levy just writes it off as comic relief.
While searching through a robot junkyard one rainy night, Max literally stumbles onto an old robot model dubbed Atom. After claiming it as his own and fixing it up, Max discovers that Atom was built with am unusually strong metal that is able to withstand the toughest of abuses. It also has a “shadow mode” which allows it to mimic a person’s movements as he or she makes them. Max and Charlie put two and two together and eventually use Charlie’s boxing history with Atom’s capabilities to try to better their situations.
While there are numerous twists throughout this plot, its main premise is hackneyed and flawed. While it means well, the film is too far removed from Matheson’s original vision. Without a convincing emotional anchor, without a human element, Real Steel is just a piece of machinery.