REVIEW: Real Steel Is Movie Comfort Food, with Robot Boxers
In Real Steel Hugh Jackman plays a boxing promoter who's forced to reconnect with his estranged son. But the boxers on which Jackman hangs his hopes aren't human: Real Steel, which is based on a Richard Matheson short story, is set in the near future, when "robot boxing" is all the rage. Controlled by their handlers, these overgrown Rock' Em Sock 'Em Robots are sent into the ring to do the work real human athletes used to do, but not even these guys are always built to take a punch. Just like their primitive plastic forebears, their blocks get knocked off routinely.
Real Steel, directed by Shawn Levy (with Steven Spielberg as one of the executive producers), is a big, expensive-looking entertainment masquerading as a modest, straightforward one, and sometimes the illusion works. Jackman's Charlie Kenton is a down-and-out former boxer looking for his next big metallic meal ticket. Instead, he gets temporary custody of the son he seems to have forgotten he had, 11-year-old Max (Dakota Goyo), whose mother has just died in an accident. Charlie wants nothing to do with Max, and basically sells him off to the rich husband of Max's aunt (played by a frosty Hope Davis, in the dragon-mom role), who wants custody. But one of the intricacies of the deal is that Charlie must first spend the summer with Max. And although the two don't get along too famously at first, their relationship and their fortunes turn around when they stumble upon an early -- circa 2016 -- robot boxer that's been relegated to the scrap heap but that still has plenty of fight left in him. Atom, as that robot is called, has a measure of charm compared with his newer, slicker counterparts. His eyes glow blue from behind his flat, fencer's mask face, allowing him a degree of expressiveness. He also has a special characteristic built right in: He's a sympathetic robot, able and willing to absorb and imitate any action a human makes.
The predictability of Real Steel -- the fact that we know father and son will gradually be drawn closer, and that Atom will become a hero in his own idiosyncratic robot way -- is less a liability than a kind of comfort food. This is one of those futuristic pictures that, the presence of robots aside, doesn't look all that futuristic: The characters' outfits have that retro-rugged gray-brown vibe of clothes you can find hanging on the sale rack at Diesel. (The exception are the limp, drapey T-shirts worn by Evangeline Lily as robot mechanic, and Jackman's love interest, Bailey; she gets the Rick Owens stuff that you have to go to Barneys to get.) Shot by Mauro Fiore, the picture manages to look crisp and glossy even in its semi-drabness. And the action sequences are fairly clean and reasonably exciting -- at their best, they capture the aura of watching a real-life fight, where athletic artistry coupled with the risk of real pain keep you wanting to watch, even when you have the impulse to turn away.
Jackman is predictably raffish and swaggering -- watching him is painless, though the role doesn't ask a lot of him emotionally. Goyo's Max is a scrappy little wiseacre, but you warm up to him: His role in the proceedings is to see value in a thrown-away robot -- as a thrown-away kid, he can sure identify -- and he slips into the role comfortably.
Still, there's something disappointingly anonymous about Real Steel. (The screenplay is by John Gatins, working from a story by Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven, inspired by Matheson.) It goes through all the motions, properly and efficiently, and yet it's missing some core warmth. Watching Real Steel, I kept thinking of Brad Bird's retro-modern cartoon The Iron Giant, and of how that picture humanized a metal alien so effortlessly. Atom is appealing enough, but the movie conditions us to care for him more than it gives us reason to. In the end, we just give in, because that's what the movie expects of us.
But even within that context, a few sequences stand out: When Max realizes Atom can imitate human movement, he urges Charlie to train with him, and the two set up an impromptu training ground in front of an old motel, right-jabbing and uppercutting in unison. The moment is captured in wide shot and carefully cut, so we can take the measure of both of these bodies, the mechanical one and its flesh-and-blood counterpart, in all their glory. Sugar Ray Leonard consulted on Real Steel, and though I'm not sure you can see evidence of that awesome street cred throughout most of the movie, it certainly shines through here. As Jackman and Atom work through their moves, simpatico, they present the brief illusion that something might actually be at stake here. And that muscle might have more in common with motherboards than we ever would have thought.