Previews for the new kids’ film Real Steel, which have been running in theatres for the better part of a year, forewarned a mash-up of the vintage game Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots with the hoary father-son drama The Champ (1931, 1979), about a washed-up boxer and his plucky kid.
As it turns out, Real Steel, directed by Night at the Museum’s Shawn Levy, borrows so much from other films that it might better be titled Reel Steal: not only from The Champ, but from Rocky, the Transformers movies and even some Star Wars.
Though allergic to originality, this is a highly polished technical production, under the auspices of Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, which features familiar cornball sentiments and some startlingly intense robot fight scenes (Sugar Ray Leonard worked as a consultant). It’s a combination that seems ideal for 10-year-old boys who adore violence, and could well be the cornerstone of the next DreamWorks franchise.
The movie’s first few minutes have a few echoes of Jeff Bridges’ Oscar-winning Crazy Heart, showing Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a hard-drinking ex-boxer turned travelling entertainer, driving his truck through heartland America. Charlie is not a singer; he manages a boxing robot in some near-future period when the dominant spectator sport blends ultimate fighting and monster trucks – large robots attempt to rattle each other’s central processing units while the crowds cry for spilled oil. Charlie has fallen so low that he’s forced to accept a rodeo match between his robot and a large bull, which soon reduces his fighter to twitching pieces of scrap metal.
Shortly after, Charlie discovers that he’s the father of a precocious, mechanically brilliant 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), whose mother has died. The boy’s aunt (Hope Davis) wants to adopt the child, so Charlie makes a deal with her rich husband: He’ll sell the kid for $100,000, but first he’ll keep his son for the summer. The neglectful, borderline-abusive father and impudent son squabble and then bond, particularly after they find a relatively small, primitive robot in a junkyard, which Max insists on getting into fighting shape.
The robot, named Atom, has refined movements, soulful blue eyes (it’s sort of a butchered version of Star Wars’s C-3PO) and a unique “mirroring” capacity, allowing it to copy exactly what its human handler does.
Hanging around in the background is Charlie’s former girlfriend, gym owner Bailey ( Lost’s Evangeline Lilly), who’s not exactly an emotional punching bag, just improbably patient. In one of the film’s odder scenes, she tells Max, rhapsodically, how Charlie almost beat the number-one boxing contender (“He was beautiful,” she says).
Atom soon scores a couple of upset victories against larger opponents in front of audiences full of what appear to be Mad Max extras. Surprisingly soon, the robot gets a chance against the undefeated world champion, a towering, glowering, black-metal monster named Zeus. Zeus is financed by a slinky Russian zillionaire (Olga Fonda) and created and managed by an arrogant Japanese genius (Karl Yune). Though it seems foolish to get too politically correct about pop culture caricatures, was it really necessary to make the villains black, Russian and Japanese?
The distant source of the screenplay (by John Gatins, from a story by Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven) is a 1956 short story by Richard Matheson ( I Am Legend) called Steel, which Matheson also helped make into a Twilight Zone episode with Lee Marvin. In the original story, the desperate manager climbs into his broken robot’s shell to fight another machine. Cue the Rod Serling voiceover: “Portrait of a losing side, proof positive that you can't outpunch machinery. Proof also of something else: that no matter what the future brings, man's capacity to rise to the occasion will remain unaltered.”
Memo from the future to Rod Serling: Just saw Real Steel. The machines have declared victory, and the sequel is in the works.
- Directed by Shawn Levy
- Written by John Gatins, Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven
- Starring Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo and Evangeline Lilly
- Classification: PG