Review: Real Steel (12) / Director: Shawn Levy / Screenplay: John Gatins / Starring: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lily / Release Date: Out Now
How much enjoyment you’ll get from Real Steel depends on how much you’re able to tolerate being thoroughly emotionally manipulated and if you’re able to cope with being able to predict exactly what this movie is doing, how it’s doing it and where it’s going within the first ten minutes. For no cliché is left untouched in this cloying, corny and ultimately unacceptably pedestrian low-key SF romp aimed very squarely at a Mom and Pop family audience who, like, really lurrve each other.
From the moment Hugh Jackman’s Charlie Kenton, grubbing a living pitching beaten-up robots into hopeless fights in a near-future world where battling robots have replaced boxing humans makes contact with his long-unseen young son Max (Goyo) we know exactly the journey Real Steel is taking us on. Having relinquished his parental rights over young Max following the death of the boy’s mother for the sake of a few thousand dollars he can spend on another fighting robot, we just know we’re going to be watching a film where Charlie and Max, initially resentful of one another, ultimately forge a new mutual respect and learn lots of really important life lessons. So we know that Charlie, already on his uppers, is going to plunge even further into debt with another robot-related failure; we know that Max is going to really irritate Charlie who doesn’t want the boy with him but just needs to for the money; we know that Max will make a Wonderful discovery which will slowly turn their fortunes around even when it looks as if things can only get worse. And of course, we know there’ll be hugs and tears before the end credits roll after a great, life-affirming triumph…
There’s absolutely nothing at all in Real Steel which even remotely surprises the audience. The story and the relationships are almost cynically formulaic and it appears that director Shawn Levy (A Night at the Museum) was banking on the presence of big clanking boxing robots to paper over the cracks in the wafer-thin story and distract the audience from the “Hmmm, haven’t I seen this before?” nature of the script. And in truth the robots are pretty much the only reason to stay tuned; the practical FX suits are good and chunky and the fighting sequences have a walloping charm about them (even if the robot movements in the ring, all motion-capture athleticism and fluidity, entirely belie the lumbering mechanical nature of the robots when they’re static or just walking and interacting with the cast).
But it’s not just the mechanical plot and action which irritate. The relationships are all either perfunctory - Charlie’s family-friendly girlfriend Bailey (Lost’s Evangeline Lily) or unconvincing - there‘s not really much fizz between Charlie and Max, even when they start to begrudgingly appreciate each other. There are some ghastly overplayed cartoon ‘bad guys’ (the bunch of debtors who give Charlie a tame pasting in one scene and the hilariously clichéd Russian robot operator in the final robot boxing sequence), no sense of danger of jeopardy or even much in the way of real drama with no raised stakes and not much to play for.
Ultimately Real Steel is a kid’s film and there’s probably enough here to keep Transformer-crazed little ‘uns going until Michael Bay wheels out Optimus Prime and the Decepticons for a fourth outing. But there’s really nothing much going on in Real Steel to hold the attention of adults apart from the most obvious and transparent form of story telling which may in itself provide a bit of easy entertainment. Real Steel looks great and has clearly been put together with enormous care and attention but it’s hard to excuse a script as laboured and seen-it-all-before as this one and I can’t help thinking that, in years to come, the always-reliable Jackman will come to regret the embarrassing sequence where he enthusiastically (if self-consciously) shadow boxes in the arena as a CGI robot mimics his moves in the boxing ring. Real Steel is adequate, lively entertainment for kids but there’s nothing much of interest going on for the grown-ups.
Extras: A couple of behind-the-scenes featurettes, bloopers, commentary.