If we have learned anything from Japanese manga and anime, or the films of James Cameron, it is that giant robots will either be things we ride around in for amusement/battle, or our unquestionable lords and masters. DreamWorks’ Real Steel provides ample reason for the robot apocalypse to eventuate, with a not-too-distant future in which TNA Wrestling has becoming boring and predictable, and humans have turned to giant mechanical creations to provide the no-holds-barred action and off-the-cuff acting skills that present-day wrestlers can never hope to achieve. Loosely based on the short story “Steel” by Richard Matheson, previously adapted as a Twilight Zone episode, Real Steel might just be one of the underrated gems of the year.
Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) is a washed-up ex-boxer who struggles to piece together enough scrap metal to cobble a robot boxer to go against the bigger, flashier models. After hitting a new low, he teams up with his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo, Thor) to build a new champion robot. Although the scrapyard bot is nothing much to look at, and Charlie doubts its longevity, they soon find the robot they call Adam has some unique abilities, not least of which is bringing them closer together. Armed with his new champion, Charlie has one more shot at the title.
Real Steel will be widely labelled “Rocky with Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots”, and for a large part it is. While this science-fiction yarn may not be in the same league as its heavyweight predecessor, it has the audacity to step in the ring and go toe-to-toe with the Balboa comparisons, and for this reason it is a contender. Just as Rocky without the boxing is a tale of some busted up people with broken down lives, so too is Real Steel. Strip away the worn-metal facade of the sci-fi robot elements, and John Gatins’ (Meet Dave) screenplay is a simple father-son story about two people unable to connect because they have channeled their frustrations elsewhere. In one of the rare eye-rolling moments, Max tells his dad “‘I want you to fight for me,” so this is precisely what he does, both literally and figuratively. That Gatins has so effortlessly woven in these elements of human drama into a story that is ostensibly about robots beating the circuits out of each other is a testament to the strength of the writing. Eat that, Michael Bay.
With Transformers: Dark of the Moon having taught us all the hard way that big shiny things don’t count for squat unless there is a real human heart at the centre of it all, Levy has assembled a perfect group to bring the fleshy elements to life in this robo-drama. Jackman is the consummate leading man for this kind of adventure, and his gruff exterior mixed with elements of pathos solidifies his reputation as a kind of 21st century Harrison Ford. While Evangeline Lilly, fresh from no longer being LOST, proves to be something more than the token female in the mix, making up for all the man-sweat and oil squirts being exchanged in this largely two-fister, it is the young Goyo who impresses with enough charm (and dance moves) to narrowly avoid being the moppet-headed cliche that has brought down so many family films before it.
While the exposition may occasionally draw out Real Steel needlessly, once the film steps into the ring, it really packs a punch (and other puns that couldn’t be ducked). Levy’s film goes pound for pound with some of the best sports films in the business, and while a suspension of disbelief may be required initially, you will believe a robot can box. Indeed, it will be difficult to not leap to your feet and cheer on the hulking metal beasts as the sparks fly in the nail-biting conclusion to this fun adventure.
Real Steel is produced by DreamWorks and is released on 6 October 2011 in Australia by Disney.