VOD film review: Real Steel
James R | On 21, Sep 2013
Director: Shawn Levy
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly
Nothing says father-son bonding like a film about giant remote-controlled robots hitting each other. That’s what Real Steel seems to think, and it shoehorns the two together any way they’ll fit.
Washed-up boxer Charlie Kenton is in dire need of redemption. His son, Max (Goyo), has no male role model in his life. There are no prizes for guessing what happens: the two gradually bond, learning valuable life lessons along the way. How? By getting giant remote-controlled robots to hit each other. Obviously.
It is the distant future. The year 2020. Human boxing is dead. Instead, punters pay to see the pinnacle of advanced technology: giant remote-controlled robots hitting each other. It’s a sport ruled by Zeuss, a clever robot that has a computer for a brain. It uses this computer-for-a-brain to work out its opponent’s weak points, rendering it unbeatable. Plus it has a designer who isn’t American, so it’s presumably meant to be presented as evil.
What chance does an old sparring bot rescued from a scrap heap by Charlie and Max have against Zeuss? It turns out quite a good one, as long as it gets a little love and attention. You could almost say that training up this underdog – called “Atom” – is symbolic of the rebuilding of a broken father-son relationship. But it’s more than that: it’s also symbolic of giant remote-controlled robots hitting each other.
Writer John Gatins does his best to eke out some characters from the cliches, but ends up producing some barmy bits of logic. One scene sees Atom (a robot) seemingly looking in the mirror at itself. Is it dreaming? Is it self-aware? Max thinks Atom can understand him without a voice recognition programme, but does this surprisingly deep question have anything to do with the rest of the film? Sadly not. Another moment sees a robot apparently getting tired in the middle of a fight – which makes about as much sense as saying your toy car has asthma, or that your Furby has man flu.
Other ideas do hit home, such as Atom’s mirror function, which sees him copying Max’s dance moves as they enter the boxing ring. You may think it’s annoying (Dakoto Goyo recalls a young Anakin Skywalker), but it’s innocent stuff like this that marks Real Steel out from Michael Bay’s robot movie franchise. That and the fact that Shawn Levy knows how to direct a satisfying fight sequence without losing track of the giant remote-controlled robots hitting each other.
The other heavyweight in Levy’s locker is, of course, Hugh. Turning on the grizzly charm, Jackman makes his terrible dad seem likeable. His romance with Evangeline Lilly’s trainer/mechanic/woman is contrived, but he knows how to swing a punch in the ring convincingly, so the set pieces ring true. As he shadow boxes alongside Atom in the ring, grinning like mad, something starts to pull on your heartstrings. Then, just as you begin to cheer on this pile of claptrap, Levy ramps up the schmaltz. For all its good parts (and there are lots of them), this enjoyable family drama never quite becomes a knockout because it tries too hard to be more than what it is: a film about giant remote-controlled robots hitting each other.