This movie was supposed to be terrible.
It’s a preposterous and sappy PG-13 action film with giant fighting robots and a precocious, yet adorable child. It’s a story that’s been told 1,000 times- down-on-his-luck raffish charmer learns the true meaning of love and responsibility, while making a spectacular comeback in the ring, demonstrating the power of the human/American spirit, etc.etc. The only real difference is, oh yeah, the GIANT FIGHTING ROBOTS.
Written by: John Gratins, Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo
So you can imagine my surprise at about the midway point for “Real Steel”, when a terrible, inescapable realization came over me.
I was actually enjoying myself.
How is this even possible, when the trailer was enough to make me laugh myself silly and then lapse into a dark reverie over the depressing state of American cinema? How could my impeccably pretentious taste levels be so overcome with ragged affection for a robot movie? The only answers I have for you lay with director Shawn Levy, a Brett Ratner–level hack whose past credits include the atrocious “Pink Panther” remake with Steve Martin and “Just Married” with Ashton Kutcher. Somehow, despite all expectations, Levy managed to imbue a ridiculous concept and script with stunning imagery, technical agility and, not least of all, charm.
Hugh Jackman, of course is the down-on-his-luck raffish charmer name Charlie, armed with a leather jacket and pissy attitude. In this near-future tale, Charlie’s boxing career was demolished years ago by the rise of robot boxing. He now travels around as a robot boxer controller, playing in (sigh) underground robot fight clubs. Charlie discovers that his son (Dakota Goyo), whom he has never seen, has recently lost his mother, and he must reluctantly bring him into his work and his world until he’s able to shove the kid off onto his aunt and uncle.
Of course, Charlie cannot remain a heartless bastard for long, and the story line between his son and him is ridiculous and very played. But young Goyo and Jackson have a rather shaggy repartee with one another that I actually found both charming and smart. The movie is primarily just the two of them and the robot, and in less capable hands their paternal angst could get boring very quickly. Goyo especially knows how to walk the fine line between adorable and nauseating and by the end I kind of wished he was my kid.
The movie also seems to have a surprising amount of technical literacy. A marvelous scene, which takes place in an underground robot fight club at an abandoned zoo, is both a terrific action sequence and an exuberant, noisy panorama of chaos, with tinges of “Mad Max” and Tarantino. In a real rarity, Levy seems particularly adept at shooting fight scenes. He eschews wide shots and shaky cam for solid, claustrophobic close-ups of metal and motor oil dripping, as the crowds roar around the players. It’s frankly gory, or it would be if it were flesh and blood being pounded on. Also, the technology in the film seems mainly on-par with what it would look like in 2024 (or whatever year it’s supposed to be). In fact, in many of the scenes the robots are real animatronic wonders created by Legacy Effects. Their physical presence can actually be felt off-screen; you’re strangely startled every time one of them walks up behind one of the human actors, or turns its head to look into the camera.
This isn’t a great movie. I’m not even sure it’s a good, given the basic concept and shoddy, exposition-heavy writing by John Gratins, Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven. And there’s a weird thread of xenophobia running through the narrative; the villains are both wealthy and foreign, and the least believable part of the movie is when they explain that Japanese robots are inferior to American-made ones. But God help me, I had a good time watching it; and unlike movies like “Transformers”, which are simply soulless holes to stuff with marketing tie-ins, this movie actually wants to be about something. It’s about people living on the edge of civilization, in all the ways people do, and about the pain and joy of watching your dreams give way to something you hadn’t expected. It doesn’t tell that story in a particularly adept or sophisticated way, but at least it’s making the attempt.
I’m kind of embarrassed to be admitting I liked this movie so much. I had dubbed this thing “Rocky-Sock ‘Em Robots” before I even stepped in the theater. But this story has been told 1,000 times because it still has the power to affect you. They wrote a movie about fighting robots because when it’s done right, fighting robots are awesome to watch. It’s a movie every machine-loving pre-pubescent boy (or girl) can love. And I didn’t mind it either.