Review: Real Steel (2011)

DIRECTOR: Shawn Levy.

CAST: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Kevin Durand, Anthony Mackie, Hope Davis, Olga Fonda, Karl Yune, James Rebhorn.

SYNOPSIS: Tired of watching humans fight, impressive robots are built to battle each other in the ring and shipped all over the world for competitions. Some, however, fight in the dirt and their owners have to drive day after day to find the nearest fight. Charlie Kenton (Jackman) is struggling to find enough money from these small fights to keep the debt collectors away. But when his 11-year-old son Max (Goyo) turns up after unexpected circumstances, the two of them find Atom, a robot who may give them a chance to both rebuild their relationship and reform the sport.

If you walk out of Real Steel without a smile on your face, there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. Better than you probably think, Real Steel once again shows us that even when he plays it effortless with Charlie Kenton, Hugh Jackman sells.

We all know that Jackman excels when it comes to punching people – his time as Wolverine proves this quite nicely. So the idea of him fighting side-by-side robots sounds brilliant, right? For the most part, yes, as when Real Steel’s good, it’s really good. Although Charlie is looking for forgiveness and redemption after being an uncaring father at the start of the film, the roundabout change doesn’t take away from this role being vintage Jackman. And, as usual, you’ll love him all the more when he’s angry.

His foil is Max, the son he’s never had contact with and whose age he is constantly a little baffled by. Having no wish to look after him after the death of the ex-girlfriend who bore him, when money comes into the picture Charlie changes tactics. Cruel as this is, Max is constantly great throughout the film, fun, quick-witted and cheeky as hell. In fact, it’s almost purely down to Dakota Goyo’s performance that we are so invested in these bots. He is incredibly enthusiastic and will guarantee a tear in your eye by the end. He can also dance, but don’t worry, this isn’t on a Bieber scale.

The support is mixed, with Lilly both beautiful and natural as Charlie’s good friend and robot engineer, Bailey, but local bad guy Ricky (Durand), and Aunt Debra (Davis) and Marvin (Rebhorn) conform to annoying stereotypes at first, finding their feet by the end. Anthony Mackie’s Finn is barely in the film, but is convincing enough when onscreen. There’s no denying the chemistry between Charlie and Bailey, but the film benefits hugely from not heavily investing in a romantic subplot and we are left to draw our own assumptions. It’s also refreshing to see a female lead not be afraid to get ugly by getting right in there and shouting along with the men.

But Real Steel is ultimately about the robots and unfortunately there is something lacking. It’s tough when designing the characteristics of robots in films. When they talk, they fall into the danger of ending up like the majority of the Transformers. When they don’t they suffer from an apparent lack of personality and it’s significantly harder to form an attachment to them. Atom, the robot at the centre of the action, is no cuddly playmate like E.T., but there is an obvious aspiration for this film to have some sort of Spielbergian connection between robot and child. The machines all look a little too perfect and that shouldn’t be a criticism, but part of me badly wanted to see some rough edges – after all, these robots have been through fight after fight. And though the outcome of the fight scenes are predictable, Levy ensures that we are fully invested and constantly cheering Max and Charlie on.

It all gets a little Rocky IV once the Russians and Japanese invade with their ‘unbeatable’ creation, Zeus, and the caricatures here are a little annoying, but they somehow seem to fit as they adhere to the type of characters we are familiar with in videogames. It’s also unbelievable just quite how much product placement there is within the film and I kept myself busy looking for more examples throughout which was an unnecessary distraction.

There’s no doubting that Levy is 100% committed to the world within this film, throwing in some bizarre, Mad Max-esque characters, that although appear slightly out of place at times do add to the whole madness of the film. Something as simple as working in a good soundtrack comprising of Eminem, Timbaland and 50 Cent also makes a huge difference and it’s clear that pre-teen boys are going to love it. Real Steel stands out from your average family film, but some scenes aren’t particularly necessary and at times drag a bit when the script is a little clunky. But once we get to the second half and the action kicks in, the pace quickens and suddenly it feels like a totally different film. It may be extremely predictable, but this underdog story mixed with family drama is ultimately clean family fun and a very enjoyable ride.

VERDICT: 3/5

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