What It Is
Eleven-year-old Max (Dakota Goyo) is a quiet, independent-minded kid who’s never met his dad, Charlie (Hugh Jackman). Not only has father never been around; he doesn’t even know Max exists until Max’s mom and Charlie’s onetime girlfriend dies. This boys-world set-up is familiar for Disney movies, and as usual, it sets up an irresistible bond at the start of Real Steel.
This much is clear as soon as they meet: father and son have matching attitudes, both resentful of their sudden connection and very tough on the outside even as they’re really vulnerable. Based on Richard Matheson’s 1956 short story, “Steel” (once the inspiration of a Twilight Zone episode starring Vincent Price), the movie puts the two together through a set of parallel crises: for Max, the loss of his mother (unseen and mostly not remembered, except in a photo) and for Charlie, the loss of his robot. In this near future, he operates fighting bots for money, sometimes in arena matches and more often in dirt lots where the crowds lust for the mechanical gladiators’ blood, or more accurately, for their dismemberment and decapitation. When he’s distracted during a match by a pair of pretty girls in cowboy hats. The bot is demolished in a rodeo ring and Charlie’s essentially out of work.
As it happens, Max loves fighting robots too, and so they’re meaning that he operates a robot fighter, in matches that resemble MMA-meets-boxing, with computerized machines who can rip each other’s arms and heads off, and sometimes be reassembled. And sometimes think, or at least seem to.
This is the case for Atom, the junkyard castaway that Max adopts when he ends up with Charlie for the summer — in an arrangement that annoys Max but Charlie sees as business as usual, namely, he “buys” the boy from his anxious aunt (Hope Davis) and her wealthy husband (James Rebhorn), agreeing to take him for a couple of months in exchange for enough cash to buy a new robot. Max is mad when he finds this out, but is soon distracted by his own affection for Atom, whom he cleans up and reprograms, then trains to fight and dance (the two put on an entertaining pre-fight routine, winning the crowd over, especially when Max and Atom do “the robot” (the dance from the ’60s).
If you’re worried that these three boys — Atom, Max, and Charlie — spend too much time together, they do all receive a bit of girly nurturing from Charlie’s ex-girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly). She’s a tomboy, to be sure: she runs her dead dad’s gym in Dallas, where Charlie used to train as a boxer, before the robot fighting overtook that notoriously corrupt and profitable (for some) industry. But she also makes clear that Max needs some emotional support as well as all the fighting and excitement, and because she likes Charlie, you’re inclined to believe he has redeeming qualities before be begins to show any. Bailey stays back in Dallas while the boys go gallivanting on the road, and Atom becomes a star boxer.
All of this white-family bonding is framed by a few characters who might be called “exotic.” After a couple of matches arranged by Charlie’s robot boxing bookie, Finn (Anthony Mackie), they draw the attention — by boasting before huge crowds — of the biggest boxing robot star, a huge black machine named Zeus. He’s owned by the sinister Russian Farra Lemkova (Olga Fonda, with very tight dresses and an uneven accent) and her hotshot Japanese robot designer Tak Mashido (Karl Yune). The showdown is a long time coming, but everyone gets to cheer when the too-rich, too-snooty villains go down.
Why It’s Fun
Max is a great kid, with a warm smile and convincing delivery. Charlie’s a bit of an irritant, his selfishness tedious after a few minutes, such that you wonder just why Bailey is so attached to him: that said, she does explain that when he was a boxer, he was “beautiful,” telling you more about what she appreciates — grace and fine-tuned physicality — than about Charlie’s gifts.
The robots, as much noise as they make, provide lively action. Atom is also charming, in ways that recall the robots in Star Wars as well as the nice Terminator in Terminator II, devotedly looking after John Connor to his last computerized zap, the “father” he never had.
Who’s Going To Love It
Viewers fond of formula films will be thrilled: this one hits every possible corny note, including swelling strings on the soundtrack, repeated reaction shots (tearful for Bailey, happy for Max) as Charlie makes his big-ring comeback, via Atom, and all manner of father-son gimmickry, from arguing to pouting to surviving danger to loving their robot.
The fights are orchestrated like terrific video games, cut perfectly on action and thrilling in conventional ways.
What To Be Aware Of
The guys and gals who hang around the bot fights tend to be rough types, which means they look like bikers or punks, and they’re literally dirty, drink a lot of beers, yell some, and appear to be drunk and rowdy in a couple of scenes.
The violence is bog and loud, as robots can do all kinds of damage to one another and no movie ratings board will care. Here the fights are cheered on by audiences portrayed as cruel and reckless: this doesn’t exactly humanize the robots, but it does suggest that fight fans can be brutal (not unlike those rowdy folks who make a lot of noise at MMA or WWE or professional boxing matches). The picture is not pretty.
A sequence that suggests Charlie’s not precisely a careful dad has Max downing more than a few Dr. Peppers: this leaves him spinning in a caffeinated sugar high, as he devises new ways to program Atom.
Charlie runs into trouble with a man he tries to hustle and ends up beaten and bloodied, in front of a very upset Max, who is also tossed about by the trio of thugs who mount the attack.
The villains — Farra and Tak — are explicitly demonized. They make mean faces, they connive, they’re deeply shadowed, and they behave badly at every opportunity.
The film uses tracks by Eminem (“Til I Collapse” and “Hit Back”), aggressive beats that will be familiar and variously meaningful to many viewers (some might recall Eminem’s own resurrection after serious depression and addiction, others might see hiphop as a form of hyper-performative boasting).
The film features some language, including repeated uses of “suck,” “crap,” “asshole” and “ass” (as in, someone threatens to kick someone else’s), “bi-ch,” “balls” (a reference to machismo), “sh-t,” and “damn.”
4 out of 10
Director: Shawn Levy
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Hope Davis, Olga Fonda, Karl Yune
US Premiere: October 7, 2011
UK Premiere: October 14, 2011