Real Steel

Real Steel (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Shawn Levy
viewed: 10/23/2011

The “feel good” robot boxing movie of 2011.

Absurdly chock-full of cliche, sentiment, and sappy music, Real Steel didn’t look like a good bet.  It’s a boxing movie, made along the lines of genre staples, only this time the combatants are big robots.  Seeing the trailer over the summer, the kids seemed interested, though I grimly winced and hoped that this wouldn’t be something we’d have to see.  But then it got some pretty good reviews and I thought we’d give it a shot.

Loosely adapted from a Richard Matheson short story (and eventual episode of The Twilight Zone original series, “Steel”), the film opens in the near future (near enough to look exactly like our present) in which boxing has become too brutal for humans, so to allow for endless carnage, humanity has turned the WWE into the WRB (World Robot Boxing) league.  Despite that rather tenuous connection to the source material, you’d have been hard pressed to have made the association.

Hugh Jackman, a former boxer, now underground robot boxer owner, is shown on his way to a rodeo operated by a former opponent.  He sets his robot to wrestle a bull and his robot gets trashed.  Jackman is also a deadbeat dad, only his ex-girlfriend, mother of his 11 year old son (played by Dakota Goyo), has died, leaving him with the opportunity to hand the boy off to the boy’s aunt.  Well, Jackman, who has no use for a kid, manages to wrangle more money from the family but winds up with the boy through the summer.

One more robot down, creditors galore, he and the boy break into a junk yard to find pieces to build a new robot.  But the boy finds an old early generation sparring ‘bot called Atom, who turns out to be more than the sum of his parts (and some leftover parts from the two previous robots).  Atom can “shadow” someone, mimicking their moves, but more than that, he’s suggested to be sentient (though to the film’s credit, this is left as a subtle aspect of the story, which winds up adding depth to it.)

Atom goes from being sure dead meat (or the robot equivalent) to being a contender for the title of robot champion.  Classic boxing narrative: check.

The thing about the movie is that it does work, despite itself.  Director Shawn Levy (whose prior film credits include things like Cheaper by the Dozen (2003), The Pink Panther (2006), Night at the Museum (2006), Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009), and Date Night (2010)) often lets the emotional moments linger too long. The girlfriend is in tears of joy watching the boy who is in tears of joy, watching his dad in tears of joy…you get the idea.

Yet somehow, this ham-fisted story delivery works within the genre.  By the end of the film we were all rooting for Jackman and Atom and while I didn’t muster tears of joy, I did actually quite enjoy the damn thing.  Though Felix was a bit non-committal after the film, he was full of smiles at the sassy Goyo and Clara watched the final fight with clenched fists and intensity.

The effects are good, too, using real life “robots” for many close-ups and well-executed digital effects for the bigger action scenes.  Atom has a simple design with lit-up eyes and a strange scar-like laceration to the mesh of his face that gives him a subtle but effective smile.  The one thing the film holds back on is Atom as a thinking, possibly living thing, holding those cards close to the vest and I have to say that I think that is one of the keys to why this film wound up working so well for me.

I don’t know.  Go figure.  The boxing robot movie was actually pretty good.

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