The first thing you need to know about "Real Steel" is that the original trailer was completely off base. The second thing you need to know about "Real Steel" is that the movie is surprisingly enjoyable. A tale of a father, son and their robot, "Real Steel" is an intriguing mash-up of video games, sports films and familial redemption. It's also geared toward a family audience, so while there are a few moments of violence, most of the combat is robot-on-robot.
Inspired by a short story written by Richard Matheson, "Real Steel" forgoes the details of the original tale, lifting elements but creating its world wholesale. Set a decade in the future, the film introduces us to Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), a drifter who could have been a contender. In this vision of the future, human boxing has been surpassed by robot boxing because it has more violence, more spectacle. Although Charlie was a great boxer, he hasn't fared well as a robot promoter and is in debt to more than one unsavory type.
Enter Max Kenton (Dakota Goyo), Charlie's son. Abandoned by his father before he was born, Max was raised by his recently deceased mother. Charlie has no interest in the boy, but takes him in for the summer because a rich relative wants to adopt Max. In short, Charlie offers to sign his parental rights away for quick cash. Needless to say, the two are not the best of friends.
Playing against a strong actor like Jackman is no easy task, but 12-year-old Goyo puts in a fine performance. Previously seen in "Thor," Goyo takes to the screen like a veteran, playing off of Jackman as if it were second nature. The two of them have a natural presence, making the progression of their relationship seem real rather than forced. It's easy to write in a script that two characters go from hating each other to respecting each other to liking each other, but it's much more difficult to show those emotions on-screen.
Throughout the course of their journey of redemption, the voice of reason flip-flops between the two. At times, it is Max who appears levelheaded next to Charlie's impulsive nature, but a few scenes later, the roles are reversed. Who fills which role in a given situation depends heavily on the individual character's motivation. It's a nice touch of depth in what could have easily been a pair of one-dimensional characters.
The third character in the motley trio is the boxing robot Atom. A sparring robot that was never meant to fight, Atom is discovered by Max and trained by the father-and-son team. A mute character with no personality of its own (the robot is just a shell, controlled with a remote), Atom serves as a visible proxy of the ultimate goal: winning a boxing championship. Along the way, Atom also helps highlight the quirks of the characters.
One particularly memorable scene occurs when Charlie is trying to explain to Max that boxing is just as much about the showmanship as it is the sport. Ultimately, Max ends up developing a pre-fight dance (not unlike the stylized entrance walks seen in the WWE) that he performs with Atom.
How the fighting robots are controlled throughout the film varies, but all of the shown methods are quite game-esque. From the remote control to voice command to the full-on, joystick-driven cockpit setup in one scene, everything you see the operators do on-screen could easily be someone playing a video game today.
In fact, there are even a handful of direct nods to the gaming industry, with Max making fun of his father for not knowing Japanese when trying to control a recently imported robot because "all the good bootlegs are from Japan." In another scene, Max chastises Charlie for not knowing how to properly chain a robot's moves into advanced combos.
Visually, "Real Steel" makes an impact due to its combined use of animatronics and CGI. Any scene with the robots walking or fighting is CGI animated, but outside of that, the filmmakers went with full-size mock-ups, giving the actors something physical to play off of. All of the CGI animated scenes were done similarly to "Avatar," where an actor was filmed performing the moves and the CGI character is overlaid on top. This results in some very fluid combat and robot fight sequences that are just as impressive, if much less chaotic, than those seen in "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."
Perhaps the most impressive thing about "Real Steel," though, isn't the technical aspect, but simply the fact that the story has heart. No matter how jaded you are, by the end of the film, you're guaranteed to be rooting for the underdog. Our screening, which was an even split between kids and adults, had most of the theater cheering every time Atom stepped into the ring. It was a reaction you would expect to see at a live sporting event, not at a theater.
Mixing equal parts family drama, sci-fi and sports legacy, "Real Steel" can aptly be described as "Rocky" for the video game generation. It's a sports film for people who might not care about the latest scores, but know how to appreciate giant robots duking it out.
"Real Steel" is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 7 minutes. It is showing in 2-D and IMAX.
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