Perhaps there’s an Occam’s Razor to film criticism, in that the simplest explanation of a film is the best. So, when every review for Shawn Levy’s Real Steel mentions that the film is a combination of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots and Rocky (1976), it’s not out of laziness, but rather that there’s no more succinct way to describe it. It’s a run-of-the-mill uplifting sports movie, but with robots involved in all the fisticuffs because the sport has been ruled too dangerous for humans. Yes, it’s a perfectly goofy concept, but within the confines of what the movie wants to be—a slick boxing film for preteens—it’s quite shrewd, far removed from the disaster porn of Michael Bay’s Transformers flicks. (If only that the glut of inspirational sports flicks used more robots. Just think how much improved Rudy (1993) or Hoosiers (1986) would be with fighting robots.)
The set-up is nothing new. We’ve got hard-luck ex-boxer Charlie (Hugh Jackman), a robot-boxing promoter who’s living on the fringes of the sport and is deep in debt. After a particularly bad bout where his robot is severely damaged, Charlie’s estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo, Thor)—whose age he can’t remember—shows up on his doorstep. At first, Charlie and Max don’t exactly like each other, but father and son soon find that they share a mutual interest in robots. When Max uncovers an old sparring robot named Atom rusting away in a scrap yard, their relationship starts to blossom. As you’ve almost certainly figured out at this point, it’s here that the story becomes a futuristic take on the classic underdog tale, as the trio of Charlie, Max and Atom climb the ladder from underground robot boxing fights to the very top—a shot at the champ.
Apart from the futuristic setting, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before in any number of inspiring sports films. Real Steel even has a schmaltzy Danny Elfmann score—full of swelling oboes and the like—to match. But it still works, largely because there’s an emotional honesty to the story that props up the straight entertainment value of fighting robots. There’s no heavy drama here—the pathos all comes from fairly light family issues—so it feels natural and grows organically. It also never takes itself too seriously. Jackman’s natural charm plays well against Goyo, who has thankfully been given a surprisingly mature preteen role.
Sure, it’s also cheesy, but we are talking about a fighting robot movie here. Reel Steal knows what it is, and—refreshingly—isn’t afraid to be a bit hokey at times. (Take Max teaching goofy dance moves to Atom, for instance.) Anyone who wants to complain about the film’s silly concept should realize that Real Steel’s sole aim is to be fun entertainment for 11-year-olds—and it’s a near-perfect film for that demographic. It’s a bit like the Wachowski brothers’ Speed Racer (2008), sans the LSD-inspired visuals. Yeah, Real Steel is pure fluff, but it’s fun fluff, blazing through its 127 minutes and doing exactly what you expect it to—and what you want it to. Rated PG-13 for some violence, intense action and brief language