By Scott Martin
Real Steel, USA / India, 2011
Directed by Shawn Levy
Boxing movies all have one thing in common, especially boxing movies these days, in our generation: there’s that moment of pure bad-assery that lets you know things just got real. The hero, our hard-boiled yet soft-hearted fighter, is getting beaten down, physically and emotionally, and you have every reason to believe it’s over – there’s no getting up off the mat, no getting out of the corner or off the ropes, and no closing those wounds – but the motion will slow, the music will stop, and the boxer will look at his opponent and do something that should make that opponent very afraid: smile. Things just got real.
That’s probably in my top five movie cliches that don’t actually put me off to the whole project. Real Steel, fortunately, has a moment like that. If you’ve seen one boxing movie, you’ve seen Real Steel. While this isn’t exactly Rocky (1976) or Cinderella Man (2005) with robots, it has the same idea; you have your rundown fighter on his last legs, trying to make it all work, while overcoming all sorts of adversity. In Real Steel, that adversity comes in the form of gambling addiction, debts, and a kid. Of course, the kid proves to be the one thing that holds our hero together. That’s not a spoiler, that’s a formula. Don’t yell at me.
The movie does follow a pretty strict formula; you can guess what happens, especially if you watch sports movies these days. Once Friday Night Lights (2004) came out, the rules changed quite a bit. Underdog sports movies have always been a huge seller, but now that the rule about the ending has changed, they aren’t anything special anymore. It’s all about “No matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game that counts.” Which is fine – tried and true – but still, surprise me again, Hollywood. I get tired of figuring out who’s going to win based solely on whether the film came out before or after 2004.
Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) used to box, and he did quite well for himself. His late trainer was the father of Charlie’s on-again/off-again girlfriend Bailey Tallet (played beautifully by Evangeline Lilly). Since his retirement from the human boxing ring, Charlie’s taken up “extreme Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots.” Remember that odd Comedy Central show Battle Bots? It’s a little like that but, you know, real. Remote controlled robots get in the ring with each other and battle it out, sometimes to the death, which, to a robot, means the head is knocked off and their oil blood is spilled all over the place. Had this been a real boxing movie with this premise, an NC-17 rating would have been unavoidable, but, because these are robots, it’s fine for the whole family. That’s not even sarcasm; this is a family film. Yeah, the PG-13 rating makes sense, but I’d take my kid to it.
Which is exactly what Charlie does. He finds out this his ex-girlfriend has passed away and, since he’s the next of kin, he’s in line to take care of his estranged son Max (played with gusto by Dakota Goyo). I’ve never seen this kid before, but he’s a natural, and he’s full of fire; I hope his career is long and fulfilling. Max’s aunt Debra (Hope Davis) and uncle Marvin (James Rebhorn) want custody of Max so they can buy him a new life, but they agree to give Charlie custody for the summer, during which Charlie and Max travel around the country pitting their robot against other bigger robots, and find out exactly what bonding truly means.
This movie has more heart than any of the trailers would lead you to believe. Most action movies don’t make me tear up during their touching scenes, but the emotion here is a testament to the skill of the actors, specifically Hugh Jackman. He has a way of tapping into even the most ridiculous characters and making them easy to connect to. Thinking back to the days when Dominic Sena’s Swordfish (2001) came out, I remember people in my school thinking it was the be-all-end-all action movie, and that John Travolta owned the world in a way he hadn’t since Pulp Fiction (1994), but the surprise to me, other than Halle Berry’s pointless topless shot, was Jackman’s tender and genuine ability. Around that same time, the X-Men series began and made Jackman a star, and rightfully so. He won’t be getting any awards for this film, which is a bit unfortunate because he deserves recognition, but he will be able to say that he made a movie about robots that took the country completely by surprise and got an unexpected critical reception. People love it, and not just because they love him. It’s a genuinely lovable movie.
Contact the author: ScottMartin@MoviesIDidntGet.com