‘Real Steel’ movie review: Hugh Jackman vs. robots in rock ’em sock ’em Rocky

Rocky with robots? Say no more. Real Steel is based on a short story by Richard Matheson, which was previously made into a memorable Twilight Zone episode with Lee Marvin. Little of the original story remains – this is a particularly Hollywoodized version, with a heavy dose of sentimentality – but the film succeeds when it sticks to the ring, giving us plenty of satisfying robot vs. robot action.

In the near future (2020s), man has created hulking humanoid robots to fight in place of men in the sport of choice: robot boxing (I guess the guys from Battlebots and Robot Wars have some catching up to do). Hugh Jackman stars as Charlie Kenton, a former fighter and current robot handler who loses his latest bot in a rather tasteless bout with a (live) bull.

Charlie is a deadbeat dad who hasn’t seen his son Max (Dakota Goyo) since the kid was born. When Max’s mother dies, Charlie only sees dollar signs: he agrees to sign over custody of the boy to Max’s aunt (Hope Davis) and her wealthy husband (James Rebhorn) for a cool $100k. Only condition: Charlie has to put up with Max for a few months while his new guardians take a trip to Italy.

Max, no surprise, is a big fan of robot boxing. Charlie reluctantly brings him along to a match, which ends up with another busted bot. Afterwards, scrounging around at the junkyard, Max digs up an old sparring bot, Atom, who comes complete with a “shadow” function, which accommodates for the inevitable training montage. Could this little bot from the garbage heap take the robot boxing world by storm, and maybe even bring father and son closer together?

Don’t tell me: you know where this is going. Yeah, it’s Rocky meets Over the Top, encompassing the full Stallone spectrum. While Real Steel wins no points for originality, it’s a slickly-delivered piece of formula filmmaking that has us rooting for the little guys. And it’s especially effective inside the ring.

That’s because of the superb effects work, a combination of animatronics and motion-capture CGI. The robots look and feel as they should: like hulking, cumbersome masses of metal that move like machines.

It’s a nice contrast to the Transformers films, where the robots looked like garbage heaps and moved with far too fluid a motion. Speaking of Transformers, Real Steel delivers where the last two failed: robot on robot action, even though there are only four extended fight scenes.

Jackman is fun here, but he’s easily upstaged by young Goyo as the precocious Max; the kid hits all the right notes, and even steals the movie away from the robot fighters. In underdeveloped subplots, Evangeline Lilly plays Charlie’s love interest, Kevin Durand is a cowboy fight promoter, and Anthony Mackie is a bookie.

Director Shawn Levy previously gave us the Pink Panther remake, the Night at the Museum movies, and the disappointing Date Night; I wouldn’t have expected a sure-handed piece of filmmaking here, but Real Steel is his first legitimate success.

Excessive product placement feels awkward: there’s overt branding for Coca Cola, Dr. Pepper, Budweiser – wait, is that Bing! Arena? I did like the Xbox 720 plug.

Soundtrack features familiar tracks by Eminem, Timbaland, 50 Cent, Foo Fighters, The Prodigy, and others; by contrast, Danny Elfman’s original score fails to make much of an impression.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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