Review: Real Steel (2011)

Real Steel is a serviceable family film in the vein of the many science-fiction infused Disney films of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s fun and often exciting but also completely dishonest. It’s satisfying but only because it manipulates the audience. Thus, it’s the kind of film for families with children, but not for filmgoers who think of cinema as something more than pure emotionality.

Real Steel follows Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), a down-on-his-luck robot boxing trainer and former boxer, who is saddled with his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) after Max’s mother dies. Charlie is in a lot of debt and his robots keep getting destroyed in the ring. One night Max and him go searching in a junkyard for spare parts to build a new fighting bot and Max finds a fully intact sparring bot named Atom amidst the rubbish. Charlie thinks that Atom is a joke but Max is convinced that the robot has what it takes to be a winner in the robot-boxing ring. Needless to say, Atom surprises everyone and becomes an unlikely underdog in the world of robot boxing.

Hugh Jackman is quite good as the scoundrel/hero Charlie Kenton here. He’s cocky and charming and it’s quite admirable that he was willing to make his character as unlikable as he is in the opening scenes. However, Dakota Goyo as Charlie’s son Max is not quite up to the challenge of starring in a big-budget Hollywood movie. Goyo learnt to act on television and his performance often reeks of pandering to the camera and playing for a laugh track in the way you see youth actors behave on the Family Channel. He’s best during the boxing scenes when his hyperactivity and his attitude seem appropriate to the circumstance and less exaggerated.

The best parts of Real Steel are the fights. The boxing matches were choreographed by Sugar Ray Leonard so although the fighters are thousand-pound machines, the fights are never incomprehensible shots of metal thrashing metal like the Transformers films. There’s a tangibility and a personality to each robot so the fights are actually engrossing. The concept of a movie about robot boxing seemed laughable upon first glance, but the film makes it plausible that such a sport could exist in the future. It seems to appeal to a dedicated subculture much like the UFC and Nascar crowds.

The end fight in particular is especially good in the way that most David versus Goliath fights are good in boxing movies. It’s riveting and emotional and Atom is a strangely likable automaton. However, this strong ending is never earned.

Real Steel is a film that is riddled with clichés. It is in the nature of a boxing movie to draw upon conventions, especially when dealing with an underdog, but director Shawn Levy and screenwriter John Gatins never make any of the conventions seem believable. It’s like they’re picking and choosing from parts of great boxing movies like Rocky, but where Rocky had compelling and honest drama aside from the boxing, Real Steel is just a combination of spare parts.

Real Steel hits all the beats that films of this type need to hit, but none of the transitions from one stage to another are true to the characters or the situation the film has set up. The emotion and the satisfaction during the final fight are forced, making the catharsis dishonest.

The film also leaves several subplots dangling. An entire episode dealing with Max’s aunt played by Hope Davis is dropped during the final act as the film’s characters seem to forget about previous transgressions so they can proceed to the emotional climax. The aunt and uncle characters become complicit to Charlie and Max’s final triumph because the film needs them to become complicit, not because it makes any sense for the characters to react in this way.

This forced growth exemplifies the entire film. The problem is not that having an emotional ending or watching an underdog succeed is bad filmmaking. There is no need to deny enjoying such a film. What is a problem is that the satisfaction here is a result of the filmmakers understanding that the audience wants a happy ending like a drug and so gives the audience that satisfaction despite it making little sense within the confines of the story.

Real Steel is fun, but it feels cheap. It forces you to cheer for its heroes, but it’s an empty applause, born out of the workings of the Hollywood movie machine that strategically configures movies as products to make audiences feel good. It is not a film comprised of genuine filmmaking.

Real Steel (2011)

Directed by Shawn Levy; written by John Gatins; starring Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, and Evangeline Lilly

5 out of 10