When I first saw the preview for this Hugh Jackman robot fighting movie I was so underwhelmed that it was possible for a while I was covered in all the whelming in the world. But as good films are still thin on the ground at the moment, and the last thing I’d seen was massively depressing The Whistleblower (pro tip: do not see a movie about Bosnian sex trafficking as your anniversary date) so I was ready for something stupid. The big surprise was, however, that Real Steel isn’t actually that stupid, and when you readjust your preconceptions of the film, it’s actually quite smart and a hell of a good time.
It’s 2020 and robot fighting has superseded human boxing (hooray! I knew the future would be good for something), and Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman, unexpectedly jerky) is a total asshole who wrangles said robots for a living. He isn’t actually that good at it, and owes money to boxing promoters all over America, and is on the run from yet another one—the film’s cowboy-hatted villain Ricky (Kevin Durand, slimy)—when he gets a life-altering piece of news: his ex-girlfriend is dead, and their son Max (Dakota Goyo, awesome), who he abandoned years before, is now is his care. While trawling for robot parts, Max—after a heartstopping accident—finds an retro (read: 2014-era) sparring bot named Atom in the mud and digs it out with his bare hands, and is then determined to put him in the ring and show his dad that he has the nous to win. Will Charlie be able to stop being an asshole long enough to turn his life around? Will he stop ruining the lives of those who care for him, including old pal and robot mechanic/boxing gym owner Bailey (Evangeline Lilly, wise and hot)? It seems obvious, but actually Charlie is such a horrible person for the first half of the film that you really doubt it, and don’t even want him to get custody over Max’s rich aunt Debra (Hope Davis).
The movie is basically a kids’ fantasy: robots, fighting, a dad who takes you on the road to grungy underground fights, lots of money, hamburgers for dinner. So when I went in thinking it was a typical blockbuster, it did seem a little cheesy in parts, until Chris whispered, “This is basically a kids’ movie.” And it’s true. Like the equally fun Super 8, it’s the story of the kid’s troubles almost more than the adult’s—it’s devastating as Max tries desperately to forge an emotional bond with the robot that he is lacking in his own life—and follows a plotline where the kid is pretty much smarter and more savvy than all the adults at just about anything, including building a championship-quality robot out of dumpster parts. Real Steel, however, succeeds because of these childlike touches rather than in spite of them, and means you’re much more willing to dismiss plot holes and strange moments (why are more people not using these old robots if they are so damn excellent? Why does literally no one else ever turn up at Bailey’s gym? Also, isn’t it totally creepy when Charlie sneaks into Bailey’s bedroom at night? etc etc), because kids don’t always care about such stuff, and maybe adults shouldn’t either. At the risk of sounding like a prude, it’s actually nice to see a film where someone drives 1200 miles just for a kiss, women can be smart instead of nude and where blood is actually a very rare sight. It means you could take your twelve-year-old nephew as well as your eighty-year-old grandpa and everyone would have fun, though the word “shit” is said maybe three times if that’s something you’re concerned about.
The acting is top-notch—Jackman is a truly horrible person but still appealing because he’s basically the world’s favourite person; Dakota Goyo is someone you may literally cheer for (I sure as hell did) and Evangeline Lilly is a bit weepy, as women typically are in movies (but as a habitual weeper I can totally relate—I mean, I cried in a hospital ad showing before the movie today), but is also tough and smart. The special effects are great, the robots utterly convincing in the presence of the humans; the sets are huge and fun—glitzy arenas, jungle-based underground fights populated by future-punks (still wearing Ramones t-shirts), rodeo-style Texas fights with a bull. The last of those was the only thing I can really say I didn’t enjoy—of course the bull was CGI in most parts (assuming bulls aren’t good at dealing with green-screen acting) but pitting an animal against a hunk of metal still made me uncomfortable and it was horrible when it got thrown around. (Vague spoiler: the bull wins that fight, but still.) The dance scene where Atom shadows Max’s moves should suck but is actually quite hilarious. The robotic rival/final boss Zeus is huge, terrifying and smashes lesser robots instantly, all while being commanded by enigmatic maker Tak Mashido (Karl Yune, moody) and icy owner Farra Lemkova (Olga Fonda, tight ponytailed). It doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, but the movie’s full of women who are perfectly capable of doing their own thing, even including a bunch of little girls at the start who give Charlie attitude when he richly deserves it.
Top effort to director Shawn Levy for making me care about robots without actually giving them any personality. It probably has to do with Atom representing all of the Kanters’ hopes and dreams, and all behind a sad little stitched-together mesh face and in a future that looks pretty much exactly the same as right now. I don’t want them to make a sequel, but if they do, I’d see it. I give Real Steel four out of five punches in the nuts.