Jean Luc Godard once said that the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie. This thought popped into my head while watching Shawn Levy’s Real Steel, Touchstone/DreamWorks’ newest giant robot adventure. I have no idea if Levy set out to craft an indictment of Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise (unlikely as both share the same executive producer in Steven Spielberg) but his version of big battling bots ends up being exactly that. Exciting, human and boasting engrossing skirmishes between looming metal juggernauts, it aims at a similar demographic but with wider appeal and better follow-through. In many ways, it’s a complete surprise—a film for families that actually delivers the fun and the heart without insulting the so-called grown-ups. As fall action movies go, this is the sleeper of the season.
Real Steel is a tightrope walk between schmaltzy tear-jerker and spirited underdog story but Levy keeps a welcome balance, including enough of both to make it a crowd-pleaser with no guilty after-taste. The script takes it inspiration from two sources. Ostensibly a remake of both the Wallace Beery and Jon Voigt versions of the father-and-son boxing melodrama The Champ, the film pulls its sci-fi world and set-up from a (credited) Richard Matheson story called ‘Steel’, once faithfully adapted as the Twilight Zone episode where Lee Marvin pretends to be his own broken android and goes head to head with a machine. Real Steel is an often hokey but effective merging of those inspirations with a heartening, too-cool dose of Rock’em, Sock’em Robots thrown in for good measure.
Taking place in a future where robotic opponents have replaced human boxers, Real Steel follows down-and-out ex-fighter Charlie Keaton (Hugh Jackman), who now trains up automaton brawlers and faces them off in public tournaments. In the early scenes, Keaton is dodging loan collectors and pitting his robot against a rodeo bull for the Dustbowl rubes at a shoddy state fair. When the robot is destroyed and Charlie’s estranged son comes back into his life, he essentially sells his custody of the kid to the boy’s aunt (Hope Davis) and her rich husband (James Rebhorn) so he can buy a better robot. Contrivance causes the precocious boy, Max (Dakota Goya) to stay with Charlie and his partner/ex-girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lily). Quicker than you can say million dollar baby, Charlie and Max are on the road with the new bot, Noisy Boy, purchased with the green that Rebhorn paid for the kid’s custody.
At first, Charlie is a right jerk to the kid, but as formula would have it Max quickly displays his pluck and resourcefulness. When Noisy Boy takes a fatal pummeling in the ring, it is Max that uncovers another robot—a sparring droid—submerged in the muck of a junkyard and he brings it home to fix. Max goads his dad into entering the robot, Atom, in a fight at a seedy venue called The Zoo, which looks like a gladiator arena crossed with a monster truck rally. But when the underdog bot wins that fight, and Max’s melds Noisy Boy’s voice-activation unit onto the scrappier Atom, he convinces Charlie to teach the robot all his old moves. After a number of successful low-level battles, Charlie and Max get their shot at the World Robot Boxing League, and inevitably and implausibly, Atom finds himself going up against the mega-bot, Zeus. Will Charlie learn to be a good dad? Will Max make his father proud? Will Bailey keep the gym? Does Atom stand a chance of even landing a punch on the far advanced Zeus? Honestly, what do you think?
Real Steel is cheesy, there’s no getting around it. But, the charm of the film is that Levy and his team work with confidence and ambition and bring so much straight-up awesome to the the robot boxing that it’s impossible not to get caught up in Charlie/Max/Atom’s bid for greatness. Shawn Levy might have started out with undemanding comedies like Night at the Museum, but here he shows a real skill for handling special effects and actors at the same time. If there’s one truly startling thing about the movie it’s that the boxing scenes actually work as sport events where we can follow every punch, duck and jab and keep track of the contenders while rooting for our favorites. The robots are beautifully imagined to reflect a sort of retro-sci-fi flair and it pays off that each has been carefully designed to match the emotional connections we are supposed to feel. Atom, for his part, is endearing and wiry, close enough to human size that he becomes Charlie’s surrogate when he’s in the ring. Zeus is a crushing behemoth, all black, sleak streamlined edges and menacing hydraulic fists.
The production design is marvelous, capturing the more futuristic aspects of a not so futuristic future, like the cavernous scrap-heaps, the backwater fighting arenas, and the imposing neon glam of the Robot League auditoriums. When the robots go at it, there’s energy and dimension present in their fight. Spatially, we can see some blows preempted before they land and other times the camera zooms so close we can see how dire the situation is. This makes all the difference; there’s intimacy to the boxing set pieces and it beckons our investment. Sure, maybe millions of people saw Dark of the Moon last summer, but I never heard that audience cheer and actively participate in the same way they did during Real Steel. When I found myself leaned forward, chin resting on my hands, spellbound by the final fight, I was legitimately impressed. The movie, no matter how silly, had done its job.
So, yes, the robot battles are the reason the movie exists and the reason you should buy a ticket this weekend, but it would be unfair to suggest that this is just hokum claptrap with good fights. Levy and the actors, particularly Jackman and Goya, make the melodrama work, even if there are just too many scenes of Max looking up in awe as Charlie shadow-boxes from the side of the ring with Atom. The script is a minefield of cliches, but the amazing thing is that it makes us root for those cliches to work in the same way we root for Atom. The chips are stacked against Real Steel, and yet there’s something goofy and wonderful about it in the same way there was something goofy and wonderful about the first couple of Rocky sequels. Jackman and Goya have more honest chemistry than Voigt and Schroder had in the 79 version of The Champ, and I felt more honest emotion for them at the end of this film. Real Steel stops short of jerking tears from us. It would much rather jerk cheers, gasps, and even in-movie heckling aimed at Atom’s opponents, as it pulls an old, forgotten model out of the dump and sets it up for new adoration.
This is the way I want my popcorn entertainment. Big, silly and honest about what it is. Go see Real Steel. It’s a rockin’ good time.