It’s a few years in the future and down-on-his-luck former boxer Charlie Kenton tries to eke out a living and regain some former glory. The sport of boxing no longer uses human players and has now gone high-tech with massive robots that really have no limits at the kind of destruction they can cause. Charlie travels from small venues (at the opening he’s at a local carnival/rodeo) and participates in underground events where he’s behind the controls of his own robots made up of scrap metal. Charlie’s hit rock-bottom and now finds his life further complicated having to deal with his estranged son, Max, who soon finds himself just as entranced with the sport as his father.
That’s the basic premise to Real Steel the latest movie from director Shawn Levy who’s best known for the Night At The Museum movies and the more recent Date Night. Real Steel loosely uses aspects of Richard Matheson’s short story Steel which has been adapted as a terrific Twilight Zone episode starring the late, great Lee Marvin. One of my fellow reviewers at The Trades said he was going to boycott this movie because it wasn’t being called “Rock “Em Sock ‘Em Robots” after the old Hasbro toy. When you first see the trailer to Real Steel, I’ll certainly grant you that that’s the first thing to come to mind, but it’s not the only time that this premise has been used before and in fact there’s been more real versions with such TV shows as Robot Wars. But that’s beside the point- is Real Steel a good movie?
For the most part, it is though I do have a couple of little quibbles with it, but we’ll get to that shortly. I give Shawn Levy high marks for making this sort of light family drama compared to his other movies. Real Steel follows a lot of familiar notes for an underdog sports film and personally I think it has a lot more in common with a film like Ron Shelton’s Tin Cup more than it does with say some obvious boxing movies.
It’s a longer movie than I’d originally expect it would be, but it doesn’t feel like a long movie. Levy’s paced this in a balanced way dividing it up between fairly equal parts of light human drama and robotic action. And speaking of it’s robotic action, I think it’s visual effects are superb. They won’t necessarily “wow” compared to some other big-budget films, but they are seamless and really well composed and quite fun.
Where this falls short for me is in it’s initial characterization of Charlie Kenton. Right off the bat, when we’re first introduced to Charlie he’s fallen out of his bed from his truck with beer bottles around him after he’s been through what I perceived to be a bender of sorts, which is one of those little character things that I’m just getting a little tired of. From there, Charlie’s just not really that much of a likable character at least on paper, and there’s nothing there to really get behind him other than the fact that he’s being played by Hugh Jackman. Now by it’s end, he certainly does progress to a point that we are behind him and rooting for him, but it happens more by rote than it does through any sort of real human depth. I mentioned Tin Cup above and there’s certainly similarities to Kevin Costner’s character in that film, but the difference here is that there’s still something very much likable and identifiable by the character that Costner plays. It’s almost like this movie is afraid to do that with Jackman here at the start and wants to keep Charlie this very edgy and abrasive guy until his son enters the picture.
Dakota Goyo plays Charlie’s son, Max, and his introduction leads to another quibble, which is this sort of by-the-humbers battling that he has with his father with any initial conversation being nothing more than yelling at each other more than anything else. Sure, it’s a little more understandable on Max’s part, I certainly get that. For an underdog sports film that plays so much by a standard playbook, it just would’ve been nice had this tried a couple of less conventional methods of illustrating it’s characters from the start and made them more appealing to want to get behind them. As I said, there is a progression and when that starts to happen that’s when this picks up more.
The brightest spot in the cast is Evangeline Lilly who plays Bailey Tallet, an old girlfriend of Charlie’s who runs the gym where Charlie first trained at. Lilly’s really engaging as this other character that’s more or less at the end of her rope and I thank goodness that she’s here to provide a counter balance to what you first get with Charlie and Max. For the most part, there’s really nothing that original about her character, but Lilly’s presence really makes her inviting.
Even with these character quibbles, I still thought that Real Steel was an overall enjoyable movie. I like it’s back half more than it’s first half though your own mileage might vary with that. With a little more thought to it’s main characters at the start this might’ve delivered a real knockout punch by it’s end. It’s diversionary fun, but it could’ve been a lot more.