What do you get when you mix together a washed up boxer played by Hugh Jackman, an insanely smart but smarmy kid with daddy issues, a pre-MCU Evangeline Lilly and Anthony Mackie along with life-sized Rock’em Sock’em Robots? A great modern day homage to 80’s films called REAL STEEL. Based off a short story, aptly named Steel, this movie takes place in the alternate timeline where boxing was replaced with high octane robotic combat as opposed to the intense brawling of the UFC. We see Charlie Keaton, the previously discussed boxer played by
Australia’s the world’s greatest actor, and his son break down emotional walls as they break apart countless cool-looking robots with their little fighter that could, Atom. On the surface, it seems like a by the numbers summer blockbuster that you’ll likely forget about the day after you see it. In some ways, it is, but I think there are more intentional creative decisions made that elevate it above being a Rocky film for kids. What you really get, in my opinion, is a sincere homage to blockbuster films of the 80’s with so many genuinely cheesy moments that you can’t help but smile all the way to the final showdown between the evil corporate bot and the little guys who just want to go the distance.
One thing that makes Real Steel work is the performers and how they manage to make the cornier lines work. That is not a bash at the writers, it is just hard for scripts like these to find actors that understand a balance in how they portray the material. This could have been an easy film where everyone took everything too seriously or not even tried at all to make the language of the film sound convincing. But both main and side characters bring in just the right amount of heart and humor to make the film a blast from beginning to end. Apart from the main trio of Jackman, Lilly, and Goyo, every side character gets a moment to shine too. I could watch Kevin Durand and Anthony Mackie act opposite of each other for hours. And seeing John Gatins, a screenwriter for the film, go nuts in the Zoo scene as a mohawked bumpkin was something even the most jaded film viewer will get a chuckle out of. If you get a chance, look at the blooper reel to see the type of goofy energy that was flowing through everyone during the production.
What also helps elevate this movie is how the filmmakers went out of their way to flesh out the bot boxing more than they needed to. Notice how there seems to be a proper method to robot fighting along with controlling the bots themselves. You can’t just scream a thousand commands or whack a million buttons. There needs to be an actual strategy because this is designed to be more in line with actual boxing than just a video game in real life. The beginning scenes where Jackman lost matches are important because they show how vital it is for a player to truly understand their bot and it’s quirks. It also helps to read the opponent, just like in real boxing, to see if you can find any tells that will help scrape in victory when it seems impossible. This realistic boxing aspect could have easily been glossed over, but I appreciate how the filmmakers took their time to give it some real weight.
I’ve gone on for a bit about different aspects of the movie but, in my mind, there is one moment that proves it is more than just a bot slaughterfest. That moment is the ending when, SPOILER ALERT, the duo with daddy issues don’t win the final match. Not only does this make it a literal Rocky for kids, but it also shows how you can put different twists on similar moments to hit equally important lessons. In Rocky, him not winning was to show how he was happy enough just to have given the champion a run for his money. In Real Steel, however, this was done to show how much the characters have grown since the beginning. It doesn’t matter if they win because they finally found happiness with each other and loved ones that stuck by them through the entire film. That’s why it is important that the sister of Max’s (the son) mother to be in the audience cheering them on. The barriers that all of these characters set up were finally broken as Atom viciously tore apart the evil woman and Asian man’s murderbot. And if that doesn’t sound like the most 80’s film out there, you’re crazier than Crazy Steve.
This is not a perfect film, but it is some of the most fun you can have if you watch it with like minded friends. There is a heart to it that stands out in every scene and I would be lying if I said that the ending didn’t put a smile on my face every time. Do yourself a favor and buy the Blu-ray for cheap next time you go to Best Buy and want to spend $5. And if you can’t spend the money, just go on Youtube to watch old episodes of Medabots until you can scrape it together.
Until then, I’ve been Superguy and you’ve been awesome.