In the near future, human fighters have been replaced in the boxing ring by humanoid robots. Though once a contender himself, former boxer Charlie Kenton (Jackman) now scrapes together a living as a robot handler who hustles small-time fights on the underground circuit. While attempting to pay off mounting debts, Charlie is unexpectedly saddled with his estranged 11-year-old son Max (Goyo), but the pair soon bond over a scrapped robot whose resilience might provide them with a real challenger to the big-time…
While Real Steel is unquestionably a movie where big robots bash and pummel the scrap metal out of each other, there’s a little more going on than just a series of steel-punching dust-ups. Predictably labelled as Rocky meets Transformers, it might not be in the same weight class as the former, but, importantly, it’s got much more heart than the latter, with director Shawn Levy purposefully structuring the familiar boxing underdog narrative around a sentimental father-son dynamic. No argument, it’s cliched and predictable (film fans will be able to guess how the story is going to pan out right from the start), yet in spite of this the end product offers a watchable and satisfying crowd-pleaser.
Nabbing the basic outline from a short story from acclaimed sci-fi author Richard Matheson (which had already been adapted into an episode of The Twilight Zone), the central humans-replaced-by-robots premise is reasonably intriguing. Admittedly, Levy misses an opportunity by failing to mine the concept for any depth (save a quick scrapyard discussion about boxing having moved on), but it’s not really that sort of film.
As for the robots themselves, they’re surprisingly effective creations thanks to a seamless blend of real animatronics (four of the robots were actually built) with motion capture CG, instead of going fully digital (a move executive producer Steven Spielberg wisely advised against). Unlike Transformers, we can actually make out what’s going on in these ‘bot-on’bot scraps and which one is which, as opposed to a whirling mess of frenzied transforming mayhem.
That said, that the movie works at all is primarily due to Hugh Jackman, a man with enough star wattage to elevate any production and, crucially, enough in the acting-chops department to sell the potentially-syrupy family drama. In all honesty, it’s a noticeably similar role to the one he played in Swordfish (a down-and-out single parent who’s broke despite a real gift he chooses to no longer use), yet Jackman is so likeable and natural at the hardass-with-heart shtick that it matters little. Of course, we know he can do the physical stuff (trained here by pugilistic legend Sugar Ray Leonard), but he also forges a decent dynamic with Dakota Goyo’s initially-bratty kid. Elsewhere, Kevin Durand is on hand as a stock villain and Evangeline Lilly manages some decent emoting despite a paper-thin part.
Though it’s undoubtedly a predictable and cliched movie where big robots bash each other, Real Steel is elevated thanks to Hugh Jackman and some impressive effects work. Sentimental for sure, but still a reasonably satisfying crowd-pleaser.