Rated PG 13/128 min
Months of seeing trailers for Real Steel had me expecting a stupid, clunky CGI action flick, the kind of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots! The Movie! you’d expect from Michael Bay. While the film is predictable, it isn’t stupid and pulled me in right from the beginning. It stars Hugh Jackman as Charlie, a former boxer who now makes a shady living entering robots into amateur robot boxing matches. He reluctantly allows his estranged son, Max (Dakota Goyo) to join him on the road while he enters one losing match after another. Only once the boy discovers a buried, long discarded robot named “Atom” does their luck change.
The story sounds ridiculous but Jackman never seems foolish and is never upstaged by the special effects. Though set in the near future, the effects aren’t overloaded and neither are the fight scenes. When the metal dukes go up, the movie seriously thrills but the emphasis is on the father and son relationship and that never ceases to be the film’s focus. “Atom” has big, adorable, glowing blue eyes but the movie never tries to manipulate you into feeling anything for the hunk of junk.
Jackman plays a rat who has coasted on his good looks and lucky breaks but is finding debt and responsibility cornering him; Jackman’s character grows up, of course, but gradually and, while Goyo is okay as far as child actors go, he has a good chemistry with the former Wolverine. Hope Davis is wasted as Max’s disapproving guardian but Evangeline Lily takes the useless girlfriend role and makes it special.
I was worried when I saw that Shawn Levy was the director, as he helmed Date Night, Cheaper by the Dozen and the mediocre Night at the Museum movies. Yet, from the opening shots, you see a confidence and filmmaking precision from Levy that demonstrates growth as a filmmaker. The film is gorgeously shot, with great use of reflective surfaces and widescreen framing that emphasize the distance between characters.
Seeing the names of producers Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg in the credits also gave me reason to be optimistic. Like last summer’s mixed but likable Super 8, this is another throwback film, the kind of Boy and His Robot movie that I would have loved when I was 10 but still dig today. The PG 13 rating is for some mild profanity and a few intense moments but this is a family movie and one that older boys and girls will enjoy as much as their folks.
There are a few screenplay problems: Atom is clearly special, with a human quality that makes him superior to his ringside opponents, but the film never bothers to tell us why. Also, with villains who are Japanese and Russian (and will remind many of Bridgette Nielsen in Rocky IV), the movie is as xenophobic as it is plastered with product placements. Anyone who has seen Stallone’s Over the Top knows this story, which is exactly like that movie, accept with giant robots instead of arm wrestling. Yet, the movie really works. It’s gritty enough to captivate older viewers but heartfelt and cool enough to capture the imagination of younger audiences.
A touch that could have killed the movie is how Max teaches the robot to dance: instead of leading to embarrassing scenes, it’s sporadically used to show us how Max understands the need for showmanship and makes a name for himself and his dancing, boxing robot.
In or out of the ring, the movie knows how to excite its audience.