Anyone familiar with the work of Shawn Levy — the commercialism auteur behind films like Night at the Museum and Cheaper by the Dozen — won’t have their outlook on life remodeled by the revelation that with his latest film, he’s got very little to say. They may, however, be surprised to hear that the guy who brought the world Just Married has delivered a wicked family-driven action movie that, when put up against the ropes, delivers some of the best robot-on-robot CGI mayhem we’ll see all year. And yes, I’m including Transformers: Dark of the Moon in that category. With a story borrowed from every sports redemption film you’ve ever seen, Real Steel moves quickly through exposition and delivers on its promise of big, bad robot boxing that ultimately finds a way to be a whole lot of fun.
The story revolves around Charlie Kenton, a down and out former boxer played by Hugh Jackman and his still-handsome 5 o’clock shadowed jaw line. He was once a prolific boxer, known for his toughness and never-say-die spirit in the ring, but he’s now a guy struggling to find his place in a world where human boxing is gone and only robots remain. After several ambitious, but impetuous decisions lead Charlie further into debt and without a working robot, he’s all but out of the game. That’s when something magical happens — his long forsaken son Max, played by the charming Dakota Goyo, reenters his life to bring a renewed sense of optimism to team Kenton. They struggle to get along, only to find that the one thing that can bring them together is an undersized sparring bot named Atom. Excavated from a junk yard, Atom is a special little robot that can take a beating. And with the right amount of spirit — and a copious amount of funky pre-fight dance moves — we watch as Charlie and Max learn to work together, as father and son, to lead Atom up the ranks of the robot boxing world, all the way to an epic final showdown with Zeus, the ultimate robot fighter.
There are also, as you might imagine, a few side stories. There’s Charlie’s relationship with Bailey, as played by Lost starlet Evangeline Lilly. They’re bonded together by a mutual love for boxing forged by her gym-owning father, the man who gave Charlie his big break back in the day. It’s that time-tested love story, delivered about as flat as you can do it. As someone who loves Evangeline Lilly for many reasons, it’s sad to see this barely there presence she’s brought to almost all of her big screen work. The lack of chemistry between her and Jackman almost bares not mentioning, but there, I just did it anyway.
In between all of this mush and “story” is the real meat of what makes Real Steel a surprisingly entertaining and vibrantly energetic experience. When two robots step into the ring to beat the nuts and bolts out of each other, it’s exciting. Using a mix of practical and CGI effects, Levy and the folks from Digital Domain deliver rich colors, blistering movement and an astonishing amount of brutality. We can almost believe that in this implausible future world — one in which Bing is a major sponsor of an arena in Detroit (yeah, right) — there’s a reason why robot boxing is so popular. Because there’s something raw and exciting about watching two entities, both of whom can be rebuilt if destroyed, completely eviscerate each other.
Thankfully, the script from John Gatins, Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven — based very loosely (seemingly only in concept, as the nitty gritty of this film feels nothing like Matheson’s work) on the story “Steel” by Richard Matheson — doesn’t linger. And Real Steel spends more time with the interesting characters (the robots) and less time borrowing a mish-mash of clichés from every other sports movie you’ve seen. If it weren’t for ambitious effects and high energy, this would be a painful experience. One that feels as if it were written by a first year creative writing student just off of a Rocky franchise bender. But it’s not painful, at least not for the audience, because it’s so much fun to watch these extremely cool robots kick serious ass. It’s safe, base-level family fair that’s worth sitting through to get to the good parts. That, and there’s no denying that even when given some worst case scenario dialogue, Hugh Jackman remains charming. How does he do that?
So kudos to Shawn Levy, he’s made a movie many of us didn’t expect — the personification of what a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots movie should be.
The Upside: The robot effects and action is blistering, energetic and hell of a lot of fun.
The Downside: It’s one of the most derivative stories you’ll see all year, complete with groan-worthy dialogue and plenty of familiar sports movie clichés.
On the Side: Much of the robot boxing fights were motion-captured using professional boxers, supervised by Sugar Ray Leonard. Which actually explains a lot about why it’s so entertaining.