The film’s called Real Steel. Gird yourself – there just may be a typo in the title. What with all the heavy lifting from such earlier films as The Champ, The Iron Giant, Transformers and each and every Rocky, it seems the movie would be better served by the name: “Real Steal.”
Oddly enough, it’s what the filmmakers don’t steal that verges on the, um, iron-ic. Based on a 1956 sci-fi short story “Steel” by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend), subsequently adapted into a 1963 episode of Twilight Zone starring Lee Marvin, the original story is set in the near future, where robots have replaced humans in the boxing ring; where mano-a-mano has been KO’d by ‘bot-a-’bot. But Marvin’s obsolete boxer is so desperate to win a fight that he disguises himself as his own damaged robot, knowing that he’ll most likely be beaten to death.
Much more lightweight, Real Steel is similarly set in the future (circa 2020), and also deals with dueling robots. But this movie’s onetime boxer turned promoter doesn’t wrestle with the same desperation as does Matheson’s hero. Here, he’s a cad of a dad named Charlie (Hugh Jackman), who easily signs over custody of his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) for cash, just so he can buy one more in a string of failing second-hand robots. Charlie’s a perennial loser, traveling from one sordid boxing venue to the other, hoping to win a fight or two. Though 11-year-old Max has no love for his father, the kid’s a fanatic for the fighting metal heads. Since a clumsy plot point has Charlie looking after Max for a few weeks until he gives him up for good, the mismatched team of callous dad and angry son end up training a scrap-heap robot together. And it’s that scrap-heap robot named “Atom” who inadvertently brings new life to them all.
Similar to last summer’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it’s the non-humans that are far more intriguing than the people. Their fights deliver an exuberance of spirit that doesn’t translate to the human drama. Jackman turns from nasty to nice in a blink of an eye, as if he were a robot himself, outfitted with an off/on switch embedded in his neck. Evangeline Lilly (Lost) as the sweet and supportive gal-pal has very little to do. Ditto Anthony Mackie and Hope Davis. But Goyo’s Max is a standout, a natural young actor who effortlessly allows a multitude of emotions to play on his face.
We are also galvanized by the production design of the tin types themselves, from the spinning double-headed monstrosity Twin Cities, to the Frankenstein-like Metro, to the deep purple and mustard-colored Noisy Boy to the mummy-faced, blue-eyed Atom. But while the robots and their varied fighting arenas amp up the look of the piece, it’s puzzling that the filmmakers ignored other elements of this film’s fictional future. Set in 2020, how is it possible that clothes, hairstyles, slang, even product logos haven’t changed one iota? Did the robots hold the production design budget hostage?
Maybe the steelyard scrapers pounded on the script as well, ultimately leaving it reeling with a weak, contrived story, little character development and staid dialogue. Because there’s winning scriptwriting … and then there’s shadow boxing.
That said, the crowds will probably overlook Real Steel ‘s iron deficiency for all the hot and heavy metal playing out in the ring.
Rating on a scale of 5 circuit breakers: 2.5
Release date: October 7, 2011
Directed by: Shawn Levy
Screenplay by: John Gatins
Story by: Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven
Based in part upon the short story “Steel” by Richard Matheson
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand, Hope Davis
Running Time: 127 minutes