The Blu-ray cover art tells us “Real Steel” is “Rocky” with robots! but that’s a little too kind. This story of a down-on-his-luck promoter trying to eke out a living in the year 2020 where robot boxing’s taken the place of the real thing, is probably a little closer to another Sylvester Stallone film, “Over the Top.” To be fair, though, “Real Steel” is a whole lot better than Stallone’s arm-wrestling cheese-a-thon, but both are glossy B-films and both involve losers who live on the fringes of an athletic subculture before a son they barely know is dropped unexpectedly into their lives.
Hugh Jackman is terrific as Charlie Kenton, the promoter in question and a degenerate gambler and former boxer who lives a step ahead of a beating at the hands of his many creditors. Director Shawn Levy is equally good at showing us around the world in which our characters inhabit, where robot boxing is the top sport in the country and exists at every conceivable level — from nationally televised events as big as the Super Bowl to underground matches where the wagering and bloodlust rival a good old-fashioned cock fight.
Like most fathers in these kinds of stories, Charlie’s never known his son, Max (Dakota Goyo). Charlie’s been too busy aimlessly moving from one hustle to the next. After circumstances I won’t spoil bring the two of them together, Charlie’s still not interested in any kind of father/son bonding until he sees an angle where he can make $100 thousand by spending a few months with the boy.
With money in hand, Charlie buys a new robot, but Charlie being Charlie, this new beginning is hardly that before he ends up flat broke again with no prospects other than the inevitable day his creditors catch up to him. His only hope is to steal the pieces of a new fighting robot from a junkyard, and this is where Max comes across Atom, an old sparring robot built to take a ton of punishment but not trained to win. Need I tell you where this is going?
“Real Steel” is a colorful, entertaining story that works because the elementary, by-the numbers screenplay is wrapped around a half-dozen outstanding fight scenes. The movie bursts to life during these scenes and, robot or no, you do find yourself caring about who wins or loses. The special effects are seamless, the fight choreography well crafted, and best of all, because the fights all take place in wildly different environments, each is a feast for the eyes.
Jackman, who I haven’t been a big fan of until now, effortlessly carries the film and delivers enough masculine charm to offset the irredeemable character Charlie really is. He’s helped some by the character of Max, who’s one of those unique movie creations: an obnoxious, smart-mouthed, wise-beyond-his-years 12 year-old who makes you rethink the whole pro-life thing. A nice surprise is the arrival of “Lost’s” talented beauty, Evangeline Lily, as the daughter of Charlie’s late mentor, a mechanical whiz, and, naturally, a potential love interest.
Another Stallone film that might come to mind as the climactic showdown looms is “Rocky IV.” Our trio of heroic scrappers in search of a second chance hail from the heartland of America. They reside in a small town and make their living in county fairs. Our antagonist, however, is a foreign-made robot owned by snotty not-from-Americans willing to do anything to win. In the end, it’s the can-do American spirit versus an elite foreign Goliath.
If you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen “Real Steel” a dozen times before. It’s the not the story, though; it’s how it’s told, and this one delivers in that department about as well as one could hope.
“Real Steel” is available January 24. You can pre-order a copy at Amazon.