Real Steel is yet another one of those boxing underdog stories that make you root for the protagonists as they climb their way from nothing to something in the space of 2 hours. It’s a predictable albeit safe formula, and director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, The Pink Panther) makes it work in a nice, easily digestible but also forgettable kind of way.
The twist is that, in the near future, boxing is done by fighting robots; blood and sinew have given way to metal and other clinking, clanging parts, as robots are pitted against one another by their human controllers in brutal bouts not unlike something you’d find in video games (think WWE to the extreme in terms of visual spectacle). Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a former boxer who was forced to adapt to this new fighting game, but struggles to survive as his robots keep getting bashed, smashed and trashed while his debts to certain suspicious types just seem to keep growing and growing.
Exacerbating this is a reunion with his wayward son Max (Dakoto Goyo, who previously appeared as a young Thor in the Marvel superhero movie earlier this year) who he’s forced to take care of for three months in an intervening period before handing over the boy’s custody. The film thus doubles as a father-son story as Charlie (who’s probably one of the worst parents ever…) comes to care for Max (and vice versa) as they pit their sparring bot ‘Atom’ against other robots and manage, against all probability, to climb the ladder to the top.
It works for two reasons. First, Charlie and Max are real characters with real motivations and seeing them bond over the course of the film is compelling and adds an extra layer of depth to the otherwise straightforward screenplay. Second is that the premise of fighting robots is actually pulled off pretty well. Mercifully, the action avoids the headache-inducing noise and blur of metal on metal that was Transformers: Dark of the Moon. The robots are all clearly distinguished and easy on the eyes, brought to life by a mix of CGI and animatronics, and feature in some surprisingly heart-pounding sequences. The choreography is excellent – each fight is different and always offers something new despite still adhering to the classic underdog story formula.
It’s not without its moments of mawkish sentimentality however, and no amount of heartwarming father-son fluff and awesome robot action can distract from the plot’s entirely too predictable structure – it progressed exactly how I expected it would. The result is a film that, while thoroughly enjoyable in the moment, failed to stick with me once I left the cinema. But sometimes that’s enough, and Real Steel does what it does well enough and with broad enough appeal to make it easy to recommend and, unlike other film’s that I’ve found somewhat forgettable, I wouldn’t mind going another round.