So you can understand my review of Real Steel, I need to explain a little about my reaction to one of the film genres. Well, perhaps genre is too strong a word. Subtype might be better. Let’s take the Hollywood view of most men. They are born emotionally stunted and, without the help of women, they are almost completely helpless except in the sex department. In that one area, male dominance is usually preserved. Now let’s cut to the chase. Sex usually produces children and, in that emotional area, man’s normal stuntedness is elevated to complete dysfunctionality. Put in simple terms, your normally inarticulate and pathetic human being falls to pieces when confronted by a mirror image of himself. Now we have the refinement which is the subject of this review. Man produces offspring. Man cannot cope with responsibility. Man runs off into the wild blue yonder. Years later, Mom dies and, guess what, there’s no-one else to look after junior. That requires us to sit through endless mush as father and son bond and, according to the script, both emerge better human beings. My reaction to this subtype of film? I find them vomit-inducing. Although I have yet to actually vomit in a cinema — I’m fundamentally too polite for such excessive behaviour — I leave feeling ill and urgently in need of alcohol to calm my shattered sensibilities.
Well Real Steel is not just mawkishly sentimental. The director, Shawn Levy has, with the help of scriptwriter John Gatkins (borrowing from a short story by Richard Matheson which aired as an episode in The Twilight Zone in 1963), produced a real work of art. This is not just sentimental. Far from it. This takes sentimentality and amplifies it, and then reinforces it, and then makes it into a club and beats you over the head with it. Indeed, this film does for sentimentality what Ed Wood so valiantly did for science fiction. Namely, puts something on the screen that’s hilariously over the top in its attempts to manipulate the audience and so actually quite entertaining. Believe me when I tell you — I never expected to be able to write a review calling a father/son bonding film “entertaining”.
So here we go with what’s supposed to be the plot. In the not so distant future (it’s supposed to be science fiction, after all) human boxing has been replaced by robots panel-beating each other on the way to the great scrapyard in the sky. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) was one of the last human boxers and, at his best, he was able to go twelve rounds with the contender for world champion. In the next fight, his opponent became world champion and was undefeated for three years, i.e. this good-looking hunk was a real fighter and almost the Cinderella Man (aka James Braddock channelled by Russell Crowe). But he ended up a loser in every sense of the word. Abandoning every shred of intelligence, he consigned himself to the scrapheap of life, living from moment to moment, no longer concerned he was a dead man walking.
Meanwhile, his son Max (Dakota Goyo) grows to the age of eleven. When the court officials contact Charlie, he’s at rock bottom, owing money to two sharks and without a robot left to fight with. Fortunately, his sister-in-law Debra (Hope Davis) and her husband Marvin (James Rebhorn) are rich, so Charlie sells his right to custody of the boy to them for $100,000 (half up front) which gives him enough to buy another robot. There’s just one catch. He has to look after the boy for the summer. Charlie does have a woman who loves him. This is the daughter of his ex-coach Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly) who looks a little lost trying to keep the old gym going. This new, old robot gets decapitated and the father-son combo find an even older robot in a scrapyard (where else). It cleans up good and it shows it’s got empathy (they call it a shadow ability to match the exact movements of whatever it’s watching). Needless to say, the boy and this inarticulate metal hunk bond almost immediately. This gives him a father substitute while his human equivalent follows the script. Now the old punchy underdog begins to win matches. He works his way up the rankings. Even dead-from-the-neck-upward Dad gets interested enough to teach him how to box, human-style. Max names “him” Atom. When Atom beats a world-ranking robot, uppity son challenges the unbeaten world champion. Unfortunately, Dad is then beaten to a pulp by a bad-tempered creditor. Dad responds to this set-back by returning the boy to his Uncle and Aunt.
However, after a monosyllabic discussion with Bailey, largely in subhuman grunts prefaced by a little mutual grooming, he decides to return to fight for his son (both literally and metaphorically). Incidentally, the world champion’s handlers are blackmailed by public opinion into giving the no-hope robot a shot at the title. Those of you who’ve seen the Cinderella Man will be following this plot with interest — arrogant champion, disliked by the public, fights underdog. However, the actual outcome follows the first Rocky, with our plucky robot emerging the People’s Champion. What makes all this really exciting is that, when the remote control fails, Charlie has to show the robot how to fight the champion. Yes, that’s right. Our magic robot can not only stand and take a beating that no other robot of steel could take without buckling, he can also keep both eyes firmly on Charlie and follow his every move. That way, Charlie gets back his self-respect as a fighter, wins the affection of his son by being a noble loser all over again, and confesses his love for Bailey who’s travelled all the way to New York just to watch the fight. There are other twists and turns that nail the sentimentality to the highest flagpole in the land but, by then, we’re just cheering Charlie and his magic robot on as they fight for the world title.
It’s a good ensemble piece with lots of familiar faces popping into view every now and again. Dakota Goyo is another of these precocious children who can just stand in front of a camera and not look embarrassed, while Hugh Jackman does quite well to keep a straight face while playing a good-hearted but essentially stupid man. The motion capture on the robots is impressive and the fights are pleasingly naturalistic. Put all this together and, as a Hollywood version of how fathers should try to win over their sons, it’s quite an amusing romp. As science fiction, it’s a complete failure. There’s no prospect we could build such sophisticated machines, even including an impressive verbal interface as well as complex joystick operations. Effectively, these are fully or semi-autonomous machines, with their complex electronics protected by apparently invulnerable metal sheeting reinforced with carbon-fibre or equivalent light-weight plating. It would cost billions of dollars to develop such machines and they could never take over human boxing in such a short time. It’s just not technically or economically feasible. So, shut down your critical faculties and prepare for the ride. Real Steel is a straight-line, fast-paced ride to sentimentality overload.