Directed by: Shawn Levy
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo
The word “no” is a powerful one; one that can effectively determine whether or not an exceedingly silly abomination of a central premise will or won’t be turned into an overlong, equally silly feature-length film. It’s no secret that similarly ridiculous projects have somehow proven their worth in the eyes of those less interested in substance (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Transformers), but Shawn Levy’s Real Steel, while an unintentional cash grab all the same, reaches a new low by blending equal parts Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots with the mild appeal of the Richard Matheson short story that inspired it. The end result is a mixed bag to put things kindly, and while the film takes itself entirely too seriously, to say that it doesn’t excel from a technical standpoint would be unfair, at least to the robots.
The laughable central story arc revolves around absentee dad and washed-up prize fighter Charlie Kenton as robot boxing reaches the height of its popularity, mostly thanks to the public’s growing thirst for bigger and louder controlled bouts of sports-related violence. With human-centric main events long gone, Charlie’s become a low-end promoter and junkyard scavenger in an attempt to find the proverbial diamond in the rough that will end his perpetual financial woes. Just when things are starting to look up, Charlie’s illegitimate son gets thrown into his lap, forcing the peculiarly lovable scumbag to drag the boy along with him until the duo stumbles upon unexpected cash cow, Atom, of whom quickly becomes the sport’s underdog and rises every-so-swiftly through the ranks to the very top.
Again, it’s safe to say that director Shawn Levy can’t quite tell the difference between warranted emotional sincerity and “Who gives a shit?” Crassness aside, there are several (hundred) moments scattered throughout the film that not-so-subtly address Charlie’s relationship with the son he abandoned and will likely continue to abandon in the near future. The interaction between the two is textbook beyond belief, uninteresting as such and clumsily implemented in between wonderfully animated and even compelling instances of robots beating the living piss out of each other. I’m sure the overall aim of the film, moreover the script, was to deftly maintain this emphasis on Charlie’s development as a character and a likable, functioning biological father, yet to do so at any point in a film that uses robot boxing as a means of reuniting father and son needs to get its priorities in check.
Mr. Jackman, while admirably establishing himself as a more than capable leading man, has decided to continue trudging through muck like this in a possible effort to keep himself on the map. Whether this is the case or not, Jackman does a pretty terrific job here and boosts the production ever so slightly above the likes of the irreparably tarnished. It’s unfortunate that he undeniably gives each and every production his all and Real Steel, needless to say, is no exception however the lack of chemistry exhibited with onscreen son Max, beyond irritatingly portrayed by Dakota Goyo, is so glaring that it’s hard to sympathize with the boy’s commonplace and easily relatable predicament.
What could’ve easily been a slightly compelling, even refreshing take on the much overused underdog sports movie formula, Real Steel instead hones in on and glorifies an absentee father’s budding relationship with the son he abandoned all those years ago. Stunning as the action-oriented bits often are, cheese abound and a thoroughly uninteresting, emotionally vapid script that tries to be everything it can’t and shouldn’t almost negate Jackman’s superb portrayal of the struggling ex-prize fighter at the film’s core. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but please Hollywood, keep your cookie-cutter emotional underbelly away from my fighting robots.