Set in a near future where human boxers have been replaced by hulking robots, deadbeat former boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is forced to look after his estranged son for the summer. The pair come across scrappy robot Atom and fix the ‘bot up to become a real contender in the robot boxing league.
Though the concept of robots boxing immediately brings to mind Rock’em Sock’em Robots, the key inspiration behind Real Steel is Richard Matheson’s short story Steel/ Adapted into a Twilight Zone episode in the 60’s, Matheson’s story focused on a former boxer disguising himself as a robot to compete in robot boxing matches. Real Steel loosely takes this concept, adds a young kid and injects it with a great deal of schmaltz and sentimentality and the end result is a film better than it has any right to be.
Set in the near future, human boxing has been outlawed and replaced by the more violent, high octane robot boxing. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a gutter-dwelling former boxer travelling around America with his robot in tow taking on whatever fight’s can get him a bit of cash. When his robot is destroyed by a rodeo bull leaving him in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt, Charlie is handed a lifeline in the form of his estranged 11 year old son Max (Dakota Goyo). Max’s mother has just died and as next of kin deadbeat dad Charlie has first dibbs on the boy but Max’s aunt Debra (Hope Davis) and her rich husband Marvin (James Rebhorn) want to adopt him. Charlie sees the chance for a big pay day and offers Marvin the boy for $100,000. Marvin accepts on one condition: Charlie looks after Max for the summer so he and his wife can enjoy their trip to Italy.
With that convenient plot contrivance in place, Charlie takes the boy in and immediately video game geek Max shows a keen eye for the mechanics of the ‘bots and tags along with Charlie to fights. Looking for parts one night, the pair stumble upon an old sparring robot named Atom and at Max’s insistence, they fix up the ‘bot and enter it into a few fights. Showing an immense ability to withstand heavy punishment, Atom emerges victorious and starts to build momentum towards a dream fight with the unbeatable Zeus, a hulking black machine owned by a cold Russian billionaire Farra Lemkova (Olga Fonda) and designed by Japanese genius Tak Mashido (Karl Yune).
It’s no spoiler to reveal that the fight happens, mirroring the first bout between Rocky and Apollo Creed, a comparison that this film can’t possible escape. Though there’s a sci fi twist with the robots, Real Steel is very much grounded in the tried and tested formula of the underdog sports movie, leaving the film feeling extremely familiar and predictable throughout.
Another inevitability is that father and son will bond and Charlie will begin to love Max, who is at times a little hard to stomach but young Dakota Goyo displays just enough charm to keep Max more endearing than annoying. Charlie is such a reprehensibly character, a man happy to sell his own son to clear his debts, that it’s a real testament to Hugh Jackman’s likeability as an actor that we not only don’t hate Charlie but we actually root for his redemption, building to a genuinely touching finale.
A veteran of kid’s TV shows and a string of mostly family friendly comedy including the Night at the Museum movies, director Shawn Levy occasionally struggles to keep the sentimentality and sickly sweet schmaltz in check the way someone like, say, Steven Spielberg would. However, the fight scenes are very well handled and genuinely thrilling at times, despite the stakes being a lot lower than two humans slugging it out so while the film may appeal more to younger audiences, there’s definitely enough here for everyone to enjoy despite the predictable nature of the film.