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In Shawn Levy’s “Real Steel,” the only difference between the world of today and that of tomorrow is the prevalence of fighting robots. No, not the kind bent on world domination—boxing robots. These hulking humanoid machines fight each other for our entertainment, and apparently haven’t yet entered their Skynet phase. The film, which features Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, and a breakout performance by 12-year-old Dakota Goyo, coasts on its evocative imagery and atmosphere, which mostly compensate for its rather pedestrian plot.
“Real Steel” is based in a future where humans become bored with human-on-human fighting and decide that robot-on-robot mashing would be more exciting. Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a washed-up human boxer with irresponsible impulses and a knack for losing money. His counterpart is Bailey Tallet (Lilly), the owner of a gym and Charlie’s foil. Where he is rash and mercurial, she is thoughtful and stable.
After Charlie fails to win a match against a 2,000-pound bull, he is summoned to court and informed that an old girlfriend has died, leaving their son in his custody. This son, Max Kenton (Dakota Goyo), proves to be a natural regarding all things robotic. After Charlie loses yet again, he and Max sneak into a junkyard and find Atom, a sparring bot who mirrors the actions of others and was originally employed for practice with other dueling bots. Max uses his father’s fighting skills to encode the “muscle” memory of the boxing techniques in Atom’s hard drive. Through this, Atom becomes a one-of-a-kind robot—one that fights like a human and has a distinctive personal connection to Max. As Atom battles his way to the top of the robot standings, Max and Charlie deepen their own relationship.
In spinning this tale, “Real Steel” offers a fresh take on future culture, but doesn’t take it far enough; essentially the only “futuristic” element of the film are its robots. But what a fantastic element it is—the movie’s mechanical sparring is spectacular. Former world boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard supervised the motion capture for the robotic fighting, and has a cameo in the movie. He also trained Jackman for his role in the film, and it shows.
Alongside the phenomenal fight scenes, viewers will also appreciate the acting skills of 12-year-old Dakota Goyo. His portrayal of Max feels more genuine than the performances of the more experienced actors surrounding him, and the young actor does a surprisingly good job of establishing a believable connection with a mute and emotionless robot.
In contrast to the compelling performance of its fledgling lead, the film’s script seems rather contrived. The writers, John Gatin, Dan Gilroy, and Jeremy Leven, first show Charlie continually berating and insulting his son only to have the two form an ostensibly loving relationship after Max finds his dad a winning robot. Jackman does little to help matters; his American accent switches frequently from twangy Texan to gravelly New Yorker, and his character is entirely lacking in charm, making the father-son bonding that much less credible. A redemption arc requires a redeemable protagonist.
The film’s premise, drawn from Richard Matheson’s short story “Steel,” is undeniably intriguing, and those looking for a visually arresting underdog story will appreciate this cinematic adaptation. There is something in it for everyone—a hillbilly rally, a state fair, an underground fight to the death, and an impressively high-profile bout in the “Bing” arena—all with robots! Perhaps most refreshingly, “Real Steel” is a movie where these robots do not fight back, take over humanity, or live alongside a decaying remnant of the human race. Instead, the movie’s machines are essentially hulking humanoid extensions of today’s video games, and simply serve as an outlet for entertainment—for both the film’s characters and its audience.
All in all, “Real Steel” has some serious flaws—the crux of the plot is basically a glorified Taebo workout, and its characters are largely forgettable—yet it still manages to retain audience interest. After all, who doesn’t like to see totally real-looking robots duking it out in stunning futuristic venues? It’s like the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), but with no rules and where it’s completely acceptable for a fighter to rip the other’s arm off.
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