Review: Real Steel (12A) / Directed by: Shawn Levy / Screenplay by: John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, Jeremy Leven / Starring: Hugh Jackman, Dan Gilroy, John Gatins, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Hope Davis, James Rebhorn, Olga Fonda
It’s great when as a film fan you can find yourself still able to be surprised. There have been a lot of surprises in 2011, things that were supposed to be sub par but turned out to be genuinely great. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a good example as is Joe Wright’s Hanna. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the year though is that director Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen, Night at the Museum) has made a pretty damn good movie. Even the story for Real Steel screams something that shouldn’t work and I know a lot of people who have rolled their eyes at the trailer. Real Steel is perhaps just as much of a family crowd pleaser as Super 8 was and is bafflingly saddled with a 12A certificate.
You must know the story by now but for those who haven’t been following the marketing campaign; Real Steel takes place in a world where robots have replaced the traditional human in the boxing ring. This has occurred for a few reasons as we are explained to in a key scene, but what it mainly boils down to is money. In this world we find former boxer and now hopeless gambling addict Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) who is eking out a life as a small time boxing manager to a series of increasingly knackered looking robots. Charlie is on a bit of a downward spiral, taking money for his robot to fight a bull at a fairground and is in deep for some money with some shifty redneck types. All seems lost and just as things can’t get any worse Charlie learns that his 11 year old son Max (Dakota Goyo) is now orphaned as his former girlfriend and the kid’s mother has died. Seeing an opportunity to make some quick cash out of Max’s prospective adopted parents, Charlie agrees to take Max for the summer whilst the rich new parents go on holiday. The two of them don’t get on, Charlie sees him as an inconvenience and Max resents his father for being absent most of his life, but gradually Max becomes more and more interested in the robot boxing world. When Charlie’s latest robot who was once a sure thing gets pulled apart and with even his long term friend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly) getting sick of him, Charlie finds himself in a scrapyard with Max looking for parts to build a new robot with. Through an accident where Max nearly gets himself killed, they find a ‘sparring bot’ called Atom buried under the earth. Feeling that it saved his life, Max insists on taking Atom with them much to Charlie’s disapproval. The child bonds with the robot who can mimic his actions and they find that this robot that nobody wants is more resilient than most. Finding that they are bonding over their love of the sport and their affection for Atom, Charlie and Max start to tour the underground boxing circuit with the robot and find they are having much success. This leads them to the corporate dominated big leagues and a confrontation with the undefeated champion where Charlie finds he has to rely on his old boxing skills to survive.
Real Steel is reminiscent of the great boxing dramas of old where you would have an underdog come back to face adversity and prove everyone wrong until the point where you cried happy tears when it all goes right. It also manages to do this without ever feeling syrupy or maudlin. Hugh Jackman is essentially playing a complete bastard who would do anything for money and he does many questionable things but manages to still make Charlie likeable. Dakota Goyo is also solid as the kid of the film who never becomes annoying although you can see how easy it would have been to cross the line. The way the two characters bond is great stuff and the actors are backed up by some really great scenes of back and forth and some comedy that doesn’t rely on slapstick or the easy fart gag. The script by John Gatins adapted from a short story by Richard Matheson is actually a pretty good lesson in packing a lot of information into a short running time. The film never feels sluggish or has long scenes of exposition, yet through a great structure it manages to build a totally believable world. You get the history of the robot boxing league and get exposed to both the seedy underbelly as well as the glossy big money side of things. Never does a scene feel superfluous though and it keeps ticking on, coming in at about two hours.
The robot special effects are also very impressive. Since the success of Transformers, I find it surprising that there haven’t been a lot more films’ featuring giant robots, but Real Steel is the first one coming out four years after the first Transformers film. Here they use a mix of CGI and practical effects and combined with the sound effects you get a real sense of the weight and carnage that two robots fighting can cause in the ring. The design of the robots is relatively simple, they look like humanoid beings as that’s what they were created to replace and they do not have the many moving parts and gears that the Transformers have. Our main robot Atom is simple but also designed to elicit feelings in the viewer with his big blue eyes. Although Atom is a well thought out creation, he also happens to be one of the major flaws of the film. They hint that the robot may actually be sentient and something more than just a drone, you get this impression in two major scenes but they don’t develop it more than that. It leaves you hanging a bit but on the other hand had it gone into that territory it may well have crossed that delicate line.
Real Steel is fantastic family entertainment that will have you leaving the cinema with a big grin and very happy children if you are lucky enough to have kids to take along. Why it’s a 12A is baffling as I can only remember one possible scene of violence that may have caused the BBFC to pause for thought. Don’t be put off though, this is a film the whole family can enjoy (Mum and Dad too) and it’s not often in these days of increasingly bland product that I can say that. Suddenly Shawn Levy’s long mooted version of DC Comics The Flash doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.
Expected rating: 6 out of 10
Real Steel hits UK cinemas October 14th