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Real Steal: Fun Formulaic Knock Out

By Ryan Mason · October 10, 2011

I know the question that has been burning on your mind all weekend, desperate for an answer: “Is Real Steel the real deal?”

Kinda.

I guess by saying it’s “kinda” the real deal I’m saying, by default, that it’s not. While flawed, there’s a lot to like in this formulaic fight flick starring Hugh Jackman as a deadbeat dad stuck with his 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo) for a summer in a not-so-distant future where the only thing different is that boxing with humans has disappeared in favor of the version with robots — and the cell phones and laptops from this world look like prototypes from Steve Jobs’ secret lab.

The best parts of Real Steel are the robots. Seriously, I know they had to have some actual animatronics for a bunch of the scenes, but most of the robots were computer generated. And you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference. They look, for lack of a better word, real. At one point in the movie it dawned on me that I’d been watching robots duking it out, and it never felt like I was watching a video game. Throw in the overall staging and direction of the fight scenes, which were exciting and fun, and it’s all a big win.

Because, let’s be, ahem, real: if you have a movie about giant, metal fighting machines and you don’t believe what you’re seeing, nothing else the film does will matter. And everything else that Real Steel does is fairly mediocre, accepted as a necessary evil to connect the dots that get us more colloidal carnage. Jackman is okay as Charlie, the former boxer who now owes a bunch of bad people a bunch of money that he doesn’t have because he’s easily the worst robot boxer ever. (Robot trainer? Robot coach? The robots do the fighting, but Charlie does all the driving by controlling them on a remote control or headset.)

Seriously, in the opening scene, Charlie’s fighting his robot against a live bull at some small-town fair, and he’s winning. Only he then literally turns his robot’s back against the two-ton steer as he flirts with two girls young enough to be his daughters, letting the mad cow mash his machine to scrap metal. Considering he wasn’t content with the original betting agreement, upping it to twenty grand with the caveat that if he lost, the other guy would beat him within an inch of his life, Charlie didn’t seem to be all that invested in the actual duel. Naturally, he loses miserably. This happens over and over throughout Real Steel, to the point where you just wonder if anyone would be this dumb as to repeat the same mistake over and over always getting the same result. Given these character flaws, Jackman performs well as pretty much a total asshole; it’s just that Charlie isn’t all that likeable at first.

Another issue is that Real Steel hits all the beats that you’d expect a fighter movie to have. Actually, no, that’s not that issue: the issue is that it hits them lazily. In fact, near the end of the second act, when Charlie and Max disconnect-then-reconnect in the span of three consecutive scenes, it seems like the filmmakers acknowledge this weakness directly in the dialogue as a sort of apology to the audience in the midst of their eye-rolling. As Charlie kisses Bailey, his love interest-slash-mechanic played by Evangeline Lilly, she says something like, “You drove 1200 miles just for a kiss?” Only in a movie would that happen. It almost seems like the filmmakers may have had better ways to get to these plot points, but it got lost in the editing room or maybe even in the script phase in favor of keeping the flow moving toward more fight scenes.

I can’t blame them for that. That means they clearly knew what this movie was about and gave us what we wanted. As Charlie and Max forge a relationship for the first time as Max’s sparring bot, Atom, wins fight after fight in a glorious, requisite montage, we for the most part couldn’t care less about how we get to those beats just so long as they occur. It helps, too, that newcomer Goyo has a cuteness and genuineness that ranks off the charts. You can’t help but root for him.

Had Warrior not already come out this fall, Real Steel would be the feel-good, stand-up-and-cheer fight movie of the year. As it is, it’s a lot of fun as long as you don’t ask too many questions, but not nearly as affecting as the former Rocky-esque flick.