Hugh Jackman is on record (somewhere, look it up yourself) as saying that he wanted to make Real Steel because he never appears in anything his kids can watch. He’s certainly done that. Although it has its faults, Real Steel isn’t a film aimed at kids – it’s a decently constructed drama, touching and funny and emotional, which makes the most of its superhuman embellishments and doesn’t pander to any section of its extraordinarily wide audience. Chances are you’ll thoroughly enjoy it.
In 2020, combat sports as we know them have changed forever. Bored by the limitations of human fighters, increasingly bloodthirsty crowds have spurred the sport on to new heights of technological aggression and now robot boxing – in which eight foot automata controlled by human ‘trainers’ fight to the death – has taken over completely. Charlie Kenton (Jackman), once one of the best human boxers in the world, has done his best to adapt to the new direction of the sport that he loves, but now he’s running out of luck. His last robot just got destroyed in a bullfight at a provincial fair, he owes thousands of dollars in every direction and he can’t seem to bottle whatever it is that makes being a scruffy middle-aged ex-boxer so damn sexy.
The last thing Charlie needs, quite frankly, is to find out that an ex he hasn’t seen in a decade has died and left him with sole custody of the son he’s never met. He’s keen to offload Max (Goyo) on his ex’s rich sister, but agrees to look after him for one summer in exchange for the down-payment he needs to get a new bot and regain his prestige; not to mention pay off his landlady Bailey (Lilly), whose father trained him for the ring. Max is initially as unenthusiastic about the arrangement as Charlie himself, but the pair begin to bond over their shared passion for robot boxing – and when Max finds an antiquated but unusually capable bot in a junkyard, it looks like Charlie may have found his ticket back to the big time. But this time, will he remember what’s really important? CUE MONTAGE!
Right, I must be honest here – Real Steel is without exception the most predictable film I’ve ever seen in my life. I’d roughed out the entire plot within about fifteen minutes of the start, and with a few exceptions (there’s one moment so absurd nobody could have seen it coming) I was bang on. But d’you know what? It didn’t matter a bit. Despite having a story gleaned in equal measure from Rock’em Sock’em Robots, School of Rock and some film with Rock in the title featuring an absent father who grows to love his bolshy son (there must be one, right?), it’s a genuinely satisfying film – the characters are believable and well-developed, the plotholes are substantially smaller than the subject matter might lead you to expect and Dakota Goyo is really, really good.
To be honest, everyone’s really good. Hugh Jackman is very clearly having the time of his life, and he put his trademark spades of effort into preparing for the role (he even trained with Sugar Ray Leonard, who consulted on the boxing scenes). Evangeline Lilly is the sort of spunky but not spunked-on female lead you can’t really have in a 15, and she makes the most of having an interesting and well-written character who actually has more to do than provide the eye candy. After all, there’s no female lead alive who’ll be able to distract the males in the audience from the PUNCHY ROBOTS – and they deserve our attention. Brought to life with a mixture of animatronics and CGI, the bots are basically believable, with Max’s boxer Atom managing to be the most convincing of all thanks to a) his futuretro aesthetic and b) a great deal of shameless anthrobopomorphism.
The down-and-dirty first half (bullfights? CHECK. Underground boxing rings? CHECK. Motels? CHECK) may outstrip the gleaming and increasingly improbable last act, but Real Steel is still damn good fun – it’s enough of a proper film to appeal to people who don’t like robots (in the trade we call them ‘morons’), and if you like films AND robots you’re going to be grinning all the way home. Lovely.