But which is which?

Real Steel is the kind of stupid high concept that shouldn’t make for a good movie but somehow does. In a year full of genre films that shouldn’t suck but do, Real Steel feels like a kind of answer to the trend of expensive middle-of-the-road spectacle movies that take shortcuts on everything but. Not only a good kids’ movie, Real Steel has a sense of honesty about the slipshod path of adulthood that is mostly lacking in contemporary family films. Usually you have to go back to the 80’s, the stuff I was raised on, to see movies that have really shitty adults who really fuck up their kids. That element makes the themes of redemption that run through the film’s underdog story a lot more significant, giving it a depth that strengthens what is basically Rock’em-Sock’em Robots: The Movie.

There’s an honesty behind the characterization of Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) that takes the sting out of the boxing-movie pantomime dialogue that sometimes mars the performances. He’s a total fucking asshole, in other words. However, Jackman is the right man for the job as he gives the character the full force of his charisma as an actor, making him just watchable enough to keep the audience from rejecting the character until he starts to grow up and into a better person. Without Dakota Goya, who couldn’t look less like Hugh Jackman if he were an Arctic Seal, it would have ultimately wound up being the kind of decent performance that great actors throw into family movies every now and then. I imagine as a form of penance. Goya, as Charlie’s estranged son Max, is pretty much awesome though and holds up his end of their dynamic with Haley-Joel Osmont level of kid-actor goodness.

Evangeline Lily’s Bailey is sort of the voice of sense in the film, balanced against Charlie’s inherent ill luck, slyness, and impetuousness and Max’s all-consuming heart.

The third member of the trifecta that carries this film is Evangeline Lily, playing Charlie’s only friend. Bailey runs her father’s gym, a remnant of when human boxing was still a sport. Charlie’s relationship with her stems from her father, who is passed on and so we never meet him, his trainer. Now that robot boxing is the name of the game, Charlie manages scrappy robots while he borrows and struggles his way through the robot boxing underworld. Bailey, on the other hand, is basically his landlord and something of a robot mechanic.

The movie drops us right in the middle of Charlie’s hardluck world. The first few scenes economically establish that he’s a deadbeat, a bit of a huckster, and that he’ll do just about anything for money. In fact, the first time we see a robot in Real Steel is when Charlie has his bot, Ambush, fight a 2000 lb steer in a carnival event in some Bible-belt shithole. Ken Durand shows up at his scenery-chewingest playing a former fighter who has done better for himself than Charlie and who runs the events.

The robots in Real Steel are a major highlight, one of the best effects jobs of the year and pretty much a categorical example of how you do CG mixed with practical to full benefit.

As things kind of swing down and hard for Charlie, his luck completely changes when his long ago ex dies leaving their 11 year old son up for grabs. Leveraging like the best of ’em, Charlie dickishly makes a deal with the kid’s aunt and uncle to take him for the summer in exchange for $100,000 and their having full custody afterward. Charlie is a total asshole to Max, at first, but Max proves to be as stubborn as his dad and probably a lot more sensible too. Together, they wind up with Atom, a “generation 2” sparring robot that looks a lot less anime and a lot more Spielberg than most of the other bots in the flick. Atom has glowing blue eyes and a broken-grate face with seams that look almost like a nose and mouth. These are subtle and expert features that give the robot’s face some personality and hints at what Max imagines to be some special quality, perhaps sentience, in the robot.

And this isn’t the only unusual thing about Atom. Unlike most other robots, apparently, Atom has a shadow function which allows it to mirror robots or people that it is synched to. Max, being some kind of magical robot boxing genius, quickly figures out that this might be useful and demands Charlie get them a fight so Atom can prove itself. One bonkers battle in an abandoned zoo run by outcasts from Mad Max later and the two are on a ride that takes them all the way to the exclusive World Robot Boxing League and untold fame and fortune.

The movie doesn’t skimp on having Charlie and Max interact with Atom. This is a good thing as those scenes are highlights in the film. Atom is a perfectly realized creation.

For the most part, I was totally along for the ride. While the movie only does world-building in a fairly superficial way, it’s not a future so different from our present that it much matters. Basically, Real Steel makes shallow commentary on the stereotypical corruption of hugely lucrative popular sporting leagues while telling a solid story about a guy learning how to be a dad and a son learning about and from his dad. It’s a familiar story, sure, but Real Steel doesn’t take any shortcuts getting to its emotional payoffs, even when the dialogue sort of betrays the immersion. Sometimes the dialogue is pretty bad but they seem to have softened some of the terrible repetitive stuff from the trailer. I didn’t hear the stupid, artificial-sounding phrase “fight game” even once in the movie where it’s used twice in the trailer. The dialogue actually reminded me of Battle:Los Angeles, actually, in that it feels like the writers watched a lot of boxing movies and tried to repeat that “feel” here. In Battle it was war movies but the effect on the movie is the same. Why are people running around in 2027 talking like Rocky Balboa? It’s just cheesy.

Thankfully, it’s about as cheesy as Real Steel gets. Mostly it’s about flashy robot fights (which are awesome) and all the Jackman charm you can stomach with precocious, but heroically ballsy, kid antics thrown in for fun. It’s a good combination, though I wish they’d followed up more on the world-building and this left-alone concept that Atom might be more than it appears. The scene where Atom looks at itself in a mirror is haunting and cool, recalling that familiar idea that a sapient life-form is one that can recognize itself in reflection. But ultimately, Real Steel never takes that anywhere. Instead, it seems like both that and the ultimate outcome of Charlie and Max’s newfound bond (the movie ends with the aunt and uncle still having full custody) are being saved as plot points for a potential sequel. Which, of course, is already being talked about.

I don’t really know where this weird, silly world of robot boxing can go from here but I suppose that if they expand the world and the stakes a bit, they might have something. Since the last parts of Real Steel are paying huge tribute to (and borrowing liberally from) Rock, it might be cool to see that continued. Though, I can scarce imagine more bizarre things than an adaptation of Rocky 2 where the boxers are fucking robots. Still, there’s room in the world for bizarre, silly ideas that run on charm, fleshed-out stories, and unironically cool hooks.

As Max says, Japanese imports are best!