The greatest achievement in Shawn Levy’s Real Steel is building the world of robot boxing. The term “robot boxing” sounds incredibly stupid when you hear it and flashes of Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots and the failed TV show Battlebots come to mind. But Levy does a tremendous job for showing not just the hi-tech wonder of the World Boxing Organization (WBO), but he takes us to the back-alleys, run-down theme parks, and country fairs where a punching robot and its owner can make some cash and win some glory. Paired with well-choreographed fights that wisely make heavy use of animatronics and practical effects, Real Steel almost has an unbeatable combination. But the clunky storytelling and awful performance from child actor Dakota Goyo stop the movie from landing a knock-out punch (I promise I’ll try to keep the boxing puns to a minimum).
Former boxer Charlie Keaton (Hugh Jackman) has had to step outside the ring to make his living off the boxing robots that basically took his job. However, his impatience, ineptitude, and poor business acumen have left him heavily in debt and scrambling to find any robot that can put up a fight. Lucky for Charlie, his ex-girlfriend dies and he finds a chance to make some quick money by selling custody of his estranged son Max (Goyo) to Max’s aunt (Hope Davis) and her rich husband (James Rebhorn). Charlie cuts a deal to take Max over the summer while the aunt and uncle go to Italy and when they come back, Charlie gets the rest of his money, Max doesn’t have to put up with his deadbeat father, and everyone is happy. But then Max and Charlie get behind Atom, a sparring robot they found in a dump and they start working him up through the ranks of the robot boxing world. Unsurprisingly, father and son finally begin to bond with Max providing the voice of reason against Charlie’s general incompetence.
Real Steel gets serious credit for not pulling any punches (sorry) when it comes to Charlie’s character. He’s a gigantic ass-hole and Jackman and Levy have no qualms about turning us against him at the beginning of the movie. We’re pushed right up to the line of caring about whether Charlie gets redeemed or not, but by making us root for Charlie’s symbol, Atom—a broken down robot that no one thinks will make it because he’s built to take punishment but not dish it out—we get on board with the Rocky story.
It’s an easy story to tell, but Real Steel has a hell of a time trying to get the words out. If the movie isn’t walking through the robot-boxing world or showing a fight scene, then we either have to drag our feet through the predictable relationship arc between Charlie and Max, or we have to waste time with Charlie’s unnecessary and underdeveloped love-interest/exposition-machine Bailey (Evangeline Lilly). The Charlie-Max relationship would at least be palatable if Goyo weren’t so terrible. He never misses an opportunity to remind you that he’s a child actor. I didn’t know anyone was looking for the next Jake Lloyd, but they’ve certainly found him. Jackman deserves a lot of credit for not trying to smooth over Charlie’s rough edges, but Goyo’s performance is a serious blow to a movie that relies on the father-son relationship as its emotional core.
But the story and characters almost become an afterthought when we step into the ring. Rather than having the WBO dominate and own every part of the robot boxing world, the movie takes Max and Charlie on the road and we get to see them fight in different arenas. By expanding the world, we believe more in the concept of “robot boxing” and look forward to seeing how fights are set up, the different bots from varying locales, and how each bot has its own fighting style. The design of the robots is terrific and I particularly liked the look of Atom who has the slightest hint of a smile on his wide-eyed face. Levy also made the smart decision to rely on practical effects. CGI tends to make objects look weightless, and that could have killed Real Steel. Instead, Levy uses CGI when he needs the robots to be quick and light on their feet, but then relies on practical effects for most of the hits and the close-ups. The only downside to this thoughtfully crafted world is that when we’re taken out of it, we notice that nothing else in the world has advanced in 15 years except for HP computers. Every company will keep same logo and slogans they have now. It’s a bit disappointing since the production designers could have had some fun predicting what future logos would look like, but the marketing teams for corporations like Sprint and Microsoft have strict parameters on their product placement, so it’s tough to hold the filmmakers accountable on this small issue.
Story and characters are the most important elements of almost any movie, and they’re serviceable enough to make Real Steel function. There’s not a disinterest in those crucial elements as much as poor execution through sloppy dialogue and an exceedingly poor casting decision for a major role. Thankfully, the movie plays to its strengths by bringing the audience into a rich and fascinating world filled with exhilarating fight scenes. Real Steel is much like Atom: clunky and a little flat-footed but charming enough to stay in the fight.