It took me a long time to get around to watching Shawn Levy’s Robo-Rocky saga Real Steel, mostly because I can’t think of a single film on the director’s resumé that I’ve actually enjoyed (though the Night at the Museum films at least had the odd moment or two of genuine humour, they were pretty dire overall). Real Steel certainly isn’t as bad as his other movies, but it’s not exactly a great film either.
Hard drinking, hard living boxing-robot-operator Charlie Kenton is in debt to some very shady characters and seems unable to make anything other than bad decisions when it comes to his robots – and his money. Soon after we’re introduced to him – following a disastrous fight in which his robot loses a fight to an actual bull (which seems unnecessarily cruel, for the bull at least – the destroyed robot gets zero sympathy from me) – he discovers that his ex has passed away, leaving him to look after his estranged son while the kid’s legal guardians travel to Italy for the summer. While scrounging for parts to fix up another beaten up ‘bot, the boy stumbles upon a discarded robot and takes it upon himself to train him, becoming very lucrative in the process. Though Charlie’s initial motivation is the money the popular robot brings in, he’s soon bonding with his kid – leading them to work together to take on the big robots at the top of the league.
One of the film’s problems is selling Hugh Jackman as an unlikeable asshole, which it does immediately, repeatedly and heavy-handedly. Yes, we get it, Charlie’s a dick. It makes it especially hard to root for him, even by the end when we’re clearly supposed to be on his side. Another issue is that Real Steel is so utterly predictable, bar perhaps the outcome of one of it’s fights. No cliché is left unturned on the overly syrupy and sentimental journey to the ending. Danny Elfman turns in a rare dud of a score too, with some terribly unmemorable music accompanying the action (the licensed rap and electronica tracks are used to much greater effect).
Yet I couldn’t bring myself to hate it. I enjoyed it despite the obvious plot machinations and manipulative attempts to pluck at the heartstrings. For one thing, it’s surprisingly well shot – especially given how limp and cheap looking Shawn Levy’s films tend to be. Another is the robots themselves, which all have distinctive looks and even a fair amount of character (more so than the walking cliché humans). A mix of impressive animatronics and CGI bring them to life well – and the fights are suitably crunchy, with a nicely physical feel of weight and impact. The sci-fi elements outside of the robots are downplayed, but it’s clearly meant to be no more than a few years in the future from now – there’s some misjudged future phone tech (and hilarious product placement for ‘Xbox 720’) but it’s a wise decision to keep things relatively free of faux-futuristic detail.
Anthony Mackie makes a good impression despite a lack of screen time, with Evangeline Lilly as Charlie’s mechanic and on/off girlfriend faring well too, in a somewhat thankless role that charges her with being a lot more understanding of Jackman’s character than he perhaps deserves.
So it might be a cheesy, predictable and overlong boxing film that just happens to feature well implemented robot action, but Real Steel somehow pulls it together and becomes somewhat enjoyable anyway. It’s far from perfect, but ultimately I found it to be quite a likeably brainless endeavour that survives on the strength of its charming, characterful metal boxers.
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