With Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Karl Yune, Olga Fonda; Running Time: 126 minutes; Rated PG-13 (for some violence, intense action and brief language); Written by John Gatins; Directed by Shawn Levy.
REAL STEEL is what happens when people who know nothing about science fiction make a science fiction movie. Although a Richard Matheson story is given as an inspiration for the story, it’s obviously much more inspired by the old toy “Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots.” To the notion of battling robots the filmmakers have taken two parts “Rocky” and one part “The Champ,” and cobbled together an exercise in Hollywood hokum.
The year is 2027. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is an ex-boxer who now tries to earn a living by promoting a robot in the newly-popular sport of robot boxing. He’s not very good at it and is heavily in debt. It at this point he learns that an old girlfriend has died, leaving behind their 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo). After several pointless scenes involving who will get custody of Max, Charlie agrees to watch the boy for the summer. We get some more plot padding and finally get to the main story: Max has found and restored a “second generation” robot named Atom who will turn out to be a scrappy but effective boxer, allowing Max and Charlie to bond.
At this point, anyone over the age of 11 should have some questions. The current robots are “fourth generation” but the only thing they are used for is boxing? In sixteen years, the only other technological or stylistic change are the cell phones? Does the world of 2011 seem absolutely identical to 1995? Would the invention of the sophisticated robots we see in the movie impact the world of professional boxing and nothing else?
Virtually no thought has been given to the world the movie depicts or the people who inhabit it. Bailey (Evangeline Lilly) is the daughter of the trainer who worked with Charlie, and now holds on to a huge gym that clearly is no longer being used for anything. Farra Lemkova (Olga Fonda) shows up as the owner of the world champion robot Zeus and she’s haughty and obnoxious for no apparent reason except that the film needs a heavy. The film is so contrived that a key element of Atom is that he has a “shadow” function – he can mimic another’s actions in real time – which we’re told is “rare” and yet turns out to be crucial to the film’s climax. How convenient.
The movie gives us the “Rocky” battle between the “people’s champion” (Atom is actually called this) and the haughty title holder, and the mawkish tear-jerking (courtesy of “The Champ”) in which the old-timer and his young boy find a connection. However “Real Steel” seems mostly concerned not with this future world but the possibility of future sequels. Every robot Atom fights is distinct. The merchandising tie-ins for action figures and the like are obvious. What’s more, the film’s conclusion fairly screams for a sequel in which Charlie, Max and Atom get to fight again. No doubt they’re already screening “Rocky II” looking for ideas.
“Real Steel” might impress boys in the 11-14 year old demographic who’ll think the battling ‘bots are cool. Anyone over that age will realize how the characters are just as robotic, going through their programmed routines. It’s not as inane as the “Transformers” movies, but it’s not for lack of trying.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.