In the interest of covering movies I’ve seen for the first time in 2012, I’m slowly getting through the few movies I didn’t hit in theaters last year, and Real Steel was one of them. The previews didn’t look that good, I mean it’s Rock’Em Sock’Em Robots: The Movie, but I’d heard from numerous people how great it was….and I still decided to wait for DVD. In the end I’m glad I didn’t spend the money to see this in theaters, not that Real Steel is bad, it just boils down to being a fight film for kids with robots and while the robot fights are fun, the father/son story didn’t gel with me.
In the year 2020, human boxing has been abandoned in favor of robot boxing. Ex-boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is down on his luck as every robot he’s bet on has lost. When he finds out his ex-girlfriend has died, leaving him to care for his 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo), Charlie wants to get rid of him as soon as possible. Instead he takes the kid with him on the road where things take a turn when Max finds an old sparring robot he decides to fix up and turn into a top contender in the World Robot League.
Real Steel borrows heavily from typical fight movies like Rocky, and many boy and his dog type films. You know the ones where the boy bonds with something (usually a dog) growing in the process. The way Charlie and Max work on this robot is not too far removed from typical father/son movies where they’d usually be working on a car. The biggest comparison I noticed was to Paper Moon oddly enough and no not because I immediately thought Dakota Goyo looked like little Tatum O’Neal (he TOTALLY did though). If you’ve never seen Paper Moon I pity you but it has a similar plot of an orphaned child being left with a father figure for a limited amount of time and wanting to earn money that’s rightfully there’s. So in a way director Shawn Levy borrows from the greats for his film.
For the most part Real Steel is enjoyable. The father/son relationship is…interesting and Hugh Jackman is always awesome as that loveable rogue who you want to punch but he takes his shirt off and everything’s okay (I’m a girl, sue me!). The robot fighting is just as fluid and engaging as a Transformers film or something else with robots and of course it’s a Rock’Em, Sock’Em robots movie no matter what you say.
The problem I have is with the writing and the characters. It’s like these characters aren’t meant to be bad…they just do shitty things and expect you to still love them anyway. Case in point, Charlie obviously doesn’t want Max and when he goes to the custody hearing he immediately asks what he has to sign to give the kid away. Max’s aunt Debra (Hope Davis) loves the little boy, yet for some reason you’re not allowed to like her because she’s flighty and I’m assuming has married some guy for his money? It’s never really explained. So of course Charlie believes there’s money to make off Max and bribes the wealthy guy to sign away his rights. The guy GOES FOR THIS in the courtroom and says it all makes sense because they’re going to Tuscany for the summer and need someone to babysit Max. 50,000 is a shitload of money to babysit, remind me to get their card to sign up! So Charlie wants to give the kid away, takes 50,000 which he never returns, and by the end you’re supposed to believe he’s come to love him. Call me cynical but I just wasn’t buying what he was selling.
That brings me to young Dakota Goyo as Max. I’m really iffy with children in film because they either fall into whiny crybabies or they’re 30-year-olds trapped in little bodies. Max is the latter and that irks the living crap out of me! He enters the film cursing and able to speak Japanese because of video games. He talks to Charlie like he would talk to pond scum and his cockiness turns into screaming into a microphone like he’s at the WWE! And his dancing with the robot was so cutesy I wanted to get my teeth checked for cavities. They tried so hard to make this kid equal parts adorable and tough that I wanted to punch him.
Also, Charlie mentions that robot fighting has become the norm because people wanted to see “extreme violence.” And that is never focused on at all. I understand the movie is supposed to showcase fighting robots but don’t tell me humans have become so bloodthirsty that they needed to see people’s entrails and to protect them from that you brought in robots! I better be dead by 2020 because I don’t want to see that vision of the future…actually a film of that would be fun!
I’m being overly harsh about this movie I know. Real Steel is fun for a mindless movie night, it helped me unwind after a heavy first day of school. I probably won’t remember it by next week’s new releases but I can at least say I saw it!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.