Real Steel (2011) Review

Prepare yourself for brutal robot action that will get pulses racing. Real Steel offers intense combat, a strong concept and a fully realized world. Audiences will have a great time getting lost in this exciting story stuffed with colorful mechanical gladiators and their equally colorful operators, making Real Steel a must-see film. The movie is surprisingly kid-oriented, which manages the suspense and makes family viewing highly recommended.

In the near future human boxing is passé, making way for the unlimited brutality of robot boxing. Ten-foot-tall steel robots enter the ring while their human operators control them from their respective corners. For the most part, the experience is similar to contemporary boxing and the rules are mostly the same – when there are rules. This is the world Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) lives in. He’s an ex-professional boxer turned fight promoter and robot operator who is down on his luck. He’s forced to haul his robots to seedy locations for sketchy exhibitions, which he rarely gets paid for. With several people chasing him for money, Charlie makes a cash deal to take care of his illegitimate son, Max (Dakota Goyo), for the summer while his guardians go on vacation. Together, they stumble upon an old sparring-bot that just might have that special spark to change Charlie’s luck and make robot boxing history.

Real Steel is a great movie to watch with kids. The story may focus on Charlie, but it’s his son, Max, who drives the plot. Max is smart, relentless, mature and hopelessly optimistic. He even shows off some slick dance moves that will have viewers smiling when his robot shadows him perfectly. If there was ever a film that showcased a kid succeeding in an adult world, Real Steel is it.

While the film is kid-oriented Real Steel is not necessarily a kiddy movie. There are a few mature themes to keep older audiences engaged. Max and Charlie are brought together only because Max’s mother died. There’s a bit of romance between Charlie and Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly), the owner of the defunct boxing gym where Charlie stores his robots. And, of course, the places Charlie takes Max are definitely not suitable for children, but only because they’re full of rough-looking men with poor hygiene.

Furthermore, the violence in Real Steel is vicious. There are decapitations and dismemberments galore. Heads are smashed, torsos are gored and one victim is literally torn in half. Thankfully, the majority of the violence is endured by the robots, which are completely expressionless save for the mean scowls molded into their faces. They show no reaction to pain or suffering and mindlessly keep fighting as their operators command. The over-the-top violence in the movie is clearly delineated from the real world and it’s unlikely that young viewers will leave the theater thinking they can perform the same actions as the robot fighters.

The sparring-bot found by Charlie and Max is named Atom, and while there’s a hint that it has the spark of life, overall, the robots in the movie are simple proxies for their operators. As such, there’s little sympathy felt when a robot is demolished in the ring, which is a shame, because sympathy for the combatant is part of what makes underdog boxing stories so successful. Audiences want to see “the little guy” dig deep and weather the onslaught of an overwhelming force. Since the fighters are robots that don’t care – or even know that they’re fighting – there’s less emotional investment in who wins or loses. When Charlie watches the destruction of one of his robots early on, the expression on his face is one of disappointment and inconvenience rather than of personal defeat.

The characters that populate this near-future are all fun to watch and handled well by their actors. Hugh Jackman performs effortlessly in a type of role he seems built to play – a brawny, prickly man who is aggressively grizzled on the outside, but a big ball of sugar on the inside. Kevin Durand makes the most of his character, the bad guy Ricky, and acts every scene with an obvious relish. The minor roles are also memorable, including the robot fighters that sport trademark gestures, like striking menacing poses or running a metal hand through a Mohawk. As a child actor, Dakota Goyo does an admirable job, but it’s a shame he wasn’t able to offer a few more dimensions, which would have gone a long way to develop his relationship with Charlie. Nevertheless, Goyo and Jackman definitely have screen chemistry and pull off their characters’ rightfully awkward father-son relationship with relative ease.

The real star of Real Steel is the world in which the story takes place. It truly feels like a possible future that could await society. That’s because the filmmakers made excellent choices in the presentation and slowly acclimated audiences to the concept rather than throwing them into the deep end. Giant robots aside, the filmmakers used practical technology to orient the audience in the future setting. Cell phones appear to be a couple of generations ahead. Tablets are see-through. Vehicles offer unique, but not impractical designs. It’s all very smart without being distractingly clever.

Finally, Real Steel is simply beautiful to look at. Watching the opening sequence with Charlie driving through the heartland of America, with sunlight quickly fading around him is a strong visual image, and that theme of powerful imagery is a constant throughout the film. Whether it’s the sleek-looking robots, beautifully choreographed fights or just a well-framed shot, Real Steel is simply gorgeous. If for no other reason, see Real Steel to get swept off your feet by a concept that is equally fantastic and so well-developed that it feels tangible.