Earlier this year, J.J. Abrams released a little movie called Super 8. The film was such a mash note to 1980’s sci-fi kids flicks that I was surprised it didn’t end with “Do you like me? Check this box?” It was pretty good, I guess, but in the end it owed so much to E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial that it failed to live up to its promise: to be “The Best 1980’s Movie Since the 1980’s.” A few months have gone by now, and with the benefit of hindsight there is one thing of which we can be certain: the movie he meant to make was Real Steel, which actually earns that hyperbolic praise. It’s a wonderfully entertaining movie on every level. I’m as surprised as you are.
Honestly, I didn’t expect much from director Shawn Levy, who previously gave unto the world utterly forgettable comedies like Cheaper by the Dozen and the Night at the Museum movies. They were competent enough but in no way indicative that Levy was capable of greater things. It just goes to show you that even the critics can be wrong… sometimes. Real Steel is a work of exceptional craftsmanship that engages on every level. Every level is still home to an underdog sports movie riddled with clichés, but underdog sports clichés actually work, especially if you shove giant robots into them.
Real Steel takes place in the not-too-distant future, in which standard fighting tournaments have been replaced in popularity with no holds barred cage matches between enormous robot avatars. It ultimately boils down to two guys with videogame controllers facing off Street Fighter IV-style, but the spectacle of having real, physical metal automatons beat the hell from each other has driven boxing, wrestling and all the other man-to-man combat competitions to the sidelines. Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a former boxer turned robot jock who travels the country betting on his own fights, screwing them up, and owing money to jerks in just about every town.
After Kenton’s robot breaks down in a degrading fight with a wild bull (a strange sequence which would have felt like animal cruelty had the poor beast actually lost), he needs money to get back in the ring as soon as possible and pay off his debts. Luckily, in the darkest sense of the word, his ex-girlfriend has died and left Charlie’s son, Max (Dakota Goyo, who also played the young Thor) without anywhere to go. Max’s aunt wants to adopt him, but Max’s uncle wants to avoid having him around all summer, and makes a back alley deal with Charlie to babysit the kid for a few months in exchange for the funds he needs to buy another robot. Yes, Charlie just sold his kid. That’s just one of the reasons why Real Steel is so great.
Like many of the great kids movies, many of which happened to hail from the 1980’s, Real Steel has a family friendly storyline but doesn’t play it too safe in the details. The filmmakers realized that in order for the audience to care about Charlie and Max bonding over the course of the film, they needed to establish them as outright antagonistic from the start. Max immediately learns that Charlie only wants him around for the money, and their relationship continues to sour as Max discovers his father’s tragic tendency for self-sabotage. Charlie’s flaws are not “movie flaws,” in that they actually hobble him instead of preventing other characters from seeing just how awesome he is. And Max is a little jerk half the time, showboating throughout the film and matching his father’s resentment snark for snark. Fortunately both Jackman and Goyo are talented enough to make their behavior truly lovable, as opposed to unpleasant or annoying. They are actual characters, not the stock archetypes you'd normally find in a movie for young demographics.
Back to the plot: pretty soon Charlie’s new robot is broken, and while they scrounge for spare parts to fix it, Max discovers a training robot in surprisingly working order. Before long, Max’s robot, “Atom,” enters the ring and proves itself capable of taking enormous punishment. It also has a “shadow” function, which allows it to mimic the movement of whoever happens to be in front of it at the time. Max teaches Atom to dance. After some cajoling, Charlie teaches it how to box. And then the real movie gets going.
Atom proves himself a popular underdog fighter thanks to his supposedly outdated, “human” style of fighting, and Real Steel reveals itself as one of the rare American fight movies that acknowledges the importance of at least some strategy over mere dramatic wherewithal. Atom bests supposedly superior robots in a series of memorable fights with strikingly designed opponents thanks to his techniques, whereas in lesser movies this kind of "character" often whens by having a big heart, etc. The film culminates in a prolonged, exciting bout with the reigning champion, “Zeus” (I choose to believe that the name is a No Holds Barred reference) which has been programmed by robot fighting superstar Tak Mashido, played with seething villainy by Karl Yune (real-life brother of Rick). It boils down to man vs. machine by proxy of yet another machine, as well as a duel of – admittedly unexplored – ideals. The tension is impressively palpable, since both Charlie and Max believe that they’re going to lose to Zeus, and probably lose badly, but they choose to fight anyway on sheer principle. Mmm… Those are good underdogs right there.
It feels like a gave away quite a bit of the plot here, but Real Steel is, on the surface, pretty familiar. Despite a few lofty sci-fi notions, Real Steel never foregrounds them. This is a tried-and-true fight movie from beginning to end. The heroes learn predictable lessons and go through familiar motions, but thanks to excellent direction by Levy and uniformly charismatic performances by the entire cast, Real Steel sells every single one of these story beats like they were fresh out of the box. The good news it that you’ll like Real Steel, and you’ll like it a lot. The bad news is that Christmas is ruined: your kids are going to want every single one of these robot action figures for the holidays, and if you don’t have kids of your own, you’re going to have to fight off hordes of angry parents to buy them for myself.
Er… "Your" self. This is a really, really cool movie.
CRAVEONLINE RATING: 9/10