Set in the not-too-distant future, the film stars Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a one-time boxer, who’s traded in his gloves for a remote in order to fight it out in robot bouts. That is, the robots – not their human controllers – hop into the ring to duke it out. Charlie’s strapped for cash and looking at the business end of a life crisis when a possible solution to his financial woes presents itself: he learns his estranged young son, Max (Dakota Goyo), is now parentless and the boy’s wealthy aunt (Hope Davis) wants custody. Badly. Her husband (James Rebhorn) is willing to pay Charlie off in order to have custodial rights signed over and a deal is quickly made. Father and son are forced to spend the summer together before the official handover, though, and therein begins the story.
Bickering and equally unhappy about the arrangement, Charlie and Max begin to bond over the robot-boxing sport. When Max literally stumbles upon a long-discarded, generations-old “sparring ‘bot” at a junkyard, he decides to fix it up and fight it. Charlie scoffs at his son’s seemingly ambitious idea… until the little robot that could (named “Atom”) begins winning.
A textbook sports-underdog story, Real Steel possesses all the traits and standard plot points that make this genre of movies so successful. Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian) also infuses the proceedings with exactly the right amount of heart, whether it’s the deepening bond between father and son or something as benign as a lingering shot of the weirdly sentient and strangely moving blue-light eyes that glow behind Atom’s mesh-like face. Caring about the characters (even the clunky metal ones created with CGI) is very very easy.
Speaking of, the cast is peppered with some fine supporting performances, including Evangeline Lilly as sexy-tomboy Bailey; Anthony Mackie as spirited-bookie Finn; and Kevin Durand as a grinning, volatile hick who’s got a score to settle with Charlie. Best of all, perhaps, are Olga Fonda (no relation) and Karl Yune as Real Steel’s human villains – they’re like cartoon characters come to life and completely two-dimensional, but in the best sense. So fun to watch!
The film’s visual effects are also a knockout, pun intended. The robots all look and feel real, as though they possess weight and depth and even personalities. Making them believable and, dare I say it, relatable goes a long way towards creating a truly engaging tale.
As I said, it’s not hard to figure out how the story will unfold, or where the characters will end up by the closing credits, but the pugilistic journey that gets the audience there is still exciting and, clichéd as it may sound, fun for the whole family.
DVD & BLU-RAY NOTES
I have to admit, there is never a moment in Real Steel where the fighting robots look fake (whether they are physical bots, or CGI), so the extra "Building the Bots" is pretty cool. "Making of Metal Valley" profiles the bot junkyard scene, and bloopers round out the DVD. The Blu-Ray also includes "Sugar Ray Leonard: Cornerman's Champ" showing Sugar Ray coaching Hugh Jackman on boxing, as well as deleted and extended scenes (including “Deleted Butterfly Storyline”, which gives the kid Max more of a background), a faux-documentary featurette "Countdown to the Fight - The Charlie Kenton Story" about Jackman's character, and a pretty nifty "Second Screen" option, which allows you to watch detailed extras about the making of a sceen while watching the movie.