Don’t panic! I’m not quitting on the Batman reviews. I have a rule to review every film I view and seeing as I watched this last night it’s getting covered in my juicy opinion goodness now rather than save for later. Suffice to say I have a total of 11 Batman reviews to come in the weeks before The Dark knight is released. Oh… none of you were panicking. Well I just wasted a paragraph then…
Real Steel is a film based on an old 1956 short story called by Richard Matheson. The premise may be familiar to any hardcore Twilight Zone fans out there, and maybe even some fans of The Simpsons who parodied that Steel in the episode I, (Annoyed-grunt)-Bot. The story follows one Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), a former boxer who now controls robots in robot boxing events. He’s fallen from grace though over the years and due to owing a lot of money and being a bad bet all around he’s now touring the fairground circuit with his bashed up bot Ambush. After Ambush is destroyed in a fight with a Bull, yep and actual Bull, Charlie is blind-sided with the news that an ex-girlfriend of his has recently passed away and he needs to come home to come to a decision on the custody of a son he hasn’t seen for 10 years. Seeing as he’s not father of the year material (Seriously, the only way he could be worse was if he had a locked basement and a few missing daughters) Charlie makes a deal with his son Max’s Uncle to take the kid for 8 weeks for $100,000 and so said Uncle can have a holiday in Italy. See what I mean about being a bad dad? Well it turns out Max is quite the robot boxing fan and after a failed fight and the discovery of a beat up old sparring bot the makings of a father-son bonding adventure through the medium of robo-violence is born.
Despite it’s very sci-fi concept the film manages to keep itself very much grounded in the now. It’s only set 8 years in the future and besides the robot the only sign of future tech is in the computers with their holographic displays which are really only a couple of years off being a reality. Cars don’t float, people don’t teleport and no-one eats a meal pill for their dinner. What also helps keep this film grounded is that even though it’s based around 12ft tall robots punching each other about the robo-faces the real core of the film is entirely on the father-son relationship. Ever single moment of the film is designed to help progress this on to the logical conclusion. Yes it’s a little predictable but I think you’ll be presently surprised by just how much of a dick Charlie is early on and just how little schmaltz there is by the films conclusion. Hell, call me a softie but the film actually manages to be genuinely touching at some points. And then robots punch each other.
The sparring robot in question, known as Atom, is a few generations too old and as such is an instant underdog. The script even nicely explains his slightly more humanised look which is actually key to the viewers relating to this little bot that could with his featureless face covered in fencing gauze. The robot fights are very well staged. Using a mixture of animatronics and Simulcam style motion capture to create the fights. What we get results in some kinetic and quite varied fight sequences that also at no point forget that there’s a human relationship that needs to be developed. I really feel a bit of shame that it’s actually surprising the a film of this type actually has strong character arcs and strong inter-character relationships. The film may follow a traditional mixture of father makes good and sports movie storytelling but it does so much better than a lot of similar efforts. The story is told with an unforced maturity and heart that’s quite lacking these days.
Without realising it I have discovered that I’m quite familiar with director Shawn Levy’s work. I even mentioned a TV show he directed an episode of in my last Batman review (that being Birds Of Prey). He has largely directed a lot of family comedies in the forms of both Night At The Museum films, Cheaper By The Dozen, Big Fat Liar and Date Night. Honestly he needs to stick to a more serious tone of film making because this is easily better than any previous film he has made by some way. Although I should state that the first Night At the Museum was actually quite a lot of fun. I’d imagine that the tight and well paced screenplay helped seeing as he’s not really had that before.
If there’s anything to level against the film I’d say it’s the way the story opens and it’s underwhelming score. The film opens with Charlie being a mess of a man and a general jerk. We see him being a jerk before we are introduced to his son which means two things have happened. We’ve been introduced to the world of robot boxing via a character we most likely don’t want to connect with and as a result we don’t have a character acting as our avatar. It’s not a massive issue though as it’s not like we haven’t seen characters like Charlie’s on screen before and the film, as mentioned, doesn’t come across as too futuristic. I would have thought introducing us to Max before we meet Charlie would have given us an empathetic character to follow and so when we do meet his father we can root for him to overcome that Wolverine shaped hurdle presented to him. As for the score it’s oddly generic for a Danny Elfman one. I can see what he was going for, a very sports TV style uplifting action score, but it’s barely memorable. A lot of the time the film just uses rock and hip-hop songs anyway which really suit the rusted up bots better.
Overall Real Steel is a much better film than it has any right to be. The premise is pure summer nonsense but it has been so well written, directed, acted and produced that you have a genuinely good boxing movie with a real human heart at it’s core. I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed the film and got into it’s story. Definitely one worth giving a shot if you’ve been unsure about it’s quality based on it’s B-Movie premise.