In a time when robots have replaced humans as boxers, former pugilist Charlie Kenton (Jackman) hustles a living sending metal men into the ring to fight. But his hardscrabble existence is upended when he’s re-introduced to 11 year-old Max (Goyo), the son he essentially abandoned after birth. Forced to spend time together, they bond over a surprisingly skilful new robo-discovery…
Kids love robots. Adults love boxing. Why not stick them together? It’s a maxim that has worked well for the inventors of Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots since 1964, and it’s an idea that director Shawn Levy is clearly hoping will carry into the cinema. Despite success with big‑budget comedies, Levy hasn’t exactly earned a lot of critical respect for his previous output (given that includes the first Pink Panther remake and both Night At The Museum films, it’s not really a huge surprise), so here he’s at least trying to stretch himself, adding family drama to the toolbox and looking to prove that he can offer more than just a lot of farcical gurning.
Fortunately, he has an ace up his sleeve in the shape of Hugh Jackman, who gives a charisma-driven performance as the stubborn Charlie Kenton, a man still holding on to past glories as a lifeline, and scraping a living up and down the quieter highways and byways of America as he searches for quick-cash opportunities that would let him pay off his creditors. Though the script doesn’t exactly give him a lot of depth to work with, it’s at its best when brought to life by Jackman and young Dakota Goyo, who evokes the Kenton spirit in some of Max’s reactions and provides an effective, if occasionally annoyingly precocious, foil for Jackman. Plus there’s Atom, the beaten-up sparring robot they discover in a junkyard that turns out to be more than meets the eye. Though there is occasionally a little too much nodding towards the likes of E. T. (including a blatant product placement on a similar level as Elliot’s use of Reese’s Pieces) as Max in particular works with the seemingly broken-down device, there’s also scope for some heartfelt moments as boy and ’bot bond during training sessions. It’s easy to forget occasionally that Atom is an effect in the quieter moments when it’s simply the two interacting.
Then there’s the looming shadow of Transformers. Sharing an executive producer in Steven Spielberg with the techno toy franchise, Real Steel was always going to be judged against the Bayhem of Optimus and co., even though Levy has insisted that the focus for his film was on the father/son angle. Fortunately, the boxing action doesn’t disappoint, with some satisfying moments as the metal warriors smash, tear and pummel each other. From no-rules scrap fights in the underground league to the shiny, high-tech, high stakes world of the World Robot Boxing championship, the actual bouts are impressively choreographed. And utilising some bleeding-edge performance-capture technology for the hulking fighters pay real dividends. While Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes’ simulated simians beat them to the punch by using the Avatar-style system in the real world, Levy and his team have pulled off solid action, even if it is confined to the boxing ring. If there’s a fault here, it’s the inane chatter of the sports commentators in later scenes, crammed full of nonsense about certain droids being “hard-wired with the will to go on…”
The biggest issue for the director is being the servant of two masters. Splitting his time between the new family unit working itself out and the underdog sports story means that neither quite gets the treatment it deserves. Other plots fare even less well, sinking into easy clichés. That’s particularly glaring whenever Jackman shares the screen with Evangeline Lilly, for while their chemistry is decent, the result is less sparks, more fizzle. And the less said about either Kevin Durand’s good ol’ boy rival or the slinky, wealthy Russian ’bot owner (Olga Fonda) who crops up near the end, the better. In fact, outside of Jackman and Goyo, the attempts to generate some real emotion all fall flat. Danny Elfman’s score lays on the soaring strings and choral work almost to parody levels and Levy lets his past get the better of him when he beats it into you that You Should Be Feeling Awed/Upset/Triumphant Right Now. A little less emphasis on easy tugging of the heartstrings would have worked wonders for the impact of the whole.
Rocky with robots? It’s not quite in Balboa’s weight class, but Real Steel at least has some heft. There’s barely a story beat among the beat-downs that you won’t expect, and sometimes the saccharine gets in the way of the spectacle, but on the whole this is enjoyable family entertainment.