Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Real Steel sports enough clichés to fill an entire Pay Per View undercard ballot. It’s a veritable checklist of washed-up tropes: There’s a has-been boxer (Hugh Jackman) seeking elusive redemption, a precocious kid (Dakota Goyo) whose familial woes give him credence to crack wise and back-talk to adults, an underdog pugilist (in this case, a boxing robot named Atom), and the has-been’s hesitant love interest (Evangeline Lilly), who keeps on loving him even when everyone else thinks he’s old news. Every character in director Shawn Levy’s Transformers-meets-The Fighter crowd-pleaser is an archetype, right down to the unbeatable, antagonistic champion, unimaginatively named Zeus.
If you can get past Real Steel’s overused plot beats and character motivations, though, there’s a reasonably effective family flick to be seen here. Levy and his vibrant cast fully commit to every formulaic scene and narrative progression, playing their parts so earnestly that, by film’s end, Real Steel should win the least demanding of viewers over. Sure, anyone who ultimately gives this Disney-engineered fluff piece a pass might hate themselves on the way home, for having given Hollywood their money, and, thus, fed the beasts known as “unoriginality” and “cookie-cutter entertainment.”
In a showy movie star role, Jackman hits the right notes as ex-boxer Charlie Kenton, who adapts to robots taking over his beloved sport by turning into a quasi-Cus D’Amato, managing and operating cash-earning ‘bots that perform such lowly acts as scrap with bulls at county fairs. He’s also waist-deep in debt, and his robots keep getting decimated and costing him truckloads of money he doesn’t have.
When his estranged baby mama passes away, Charlie makes a deal with the kid’s legal guardians—his aunt and uncle from the mother’s side—to watch over 11-year-old Max (Goyo) for two months, a gig that will bring in $100,000 from uncle’s bank account. Under Charlie’s watch, Max unearths an old sparring robot, Atom, in a junkyard, convinces daddy to whip the dated ‘bot into shape, and finds time to bust awkward dance moves with his new metallic pal. Of course they do “The Robot.”
From there, Real Steel transpires exactly as one would expect, running through father-son bonding scenes and headfirst into the inevitable final bout between Atom and Zeus. Who wins? It doesn’t matter, really, since you know that Charlie and Max will ultimately hug it out in the emotional final shot. But unlike the film’s source material, the Richard Matheson short story “Steel” (filmed as a superior Twilight Zone episodein 1963), Real Steel’s moment of catharsis feels rudimentary, not poignant.
The script, written by John Gatins, sticks too heavily with the Charlie/Max relationship, hardly paying any attention to Max’s closeness with Atom, which deflates the “Hope he wins” verve from Atom’s big fight, and barely glossing over Charlie’s past in-ring history, making Real Steel’s yay-Charlie climax feel distractingly unearned.
Like every other fight sequence, though, Atom’s sanctioned brawl against Zeus is visually impressive, with fluid interplay between the CGI motion-capture robots and Levy’s energetic camerawork. And, with that, Real Steel has more in common with Michael Bay’s dueling robot flicks than just notable special effects. Jackman and his co-stars give the film genuine heart and harmless likeability, something that Shia LaBeouf and his cohorts have yet to do, but Real Steel is far too rehashed and lightweight to work as anything more than loud, expensive, routine escapism.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)