When I was watching the original advanced press for Real Steel in 2011, it was impossible not to think thoughts like, “This has got to be the worst movie ever made.” Of course, this was before I’d seen either Battleship or Step Up Revolution, and found out what a bad movie really was. Still, one does not go into a feel-good movie about robots boxing without a certain amount of disdain. As the film got closer, though, I began to get that sinking feeling you get when you realize that something you’ve been very publicly dismissive of might turn out to be not that bad after all.
And now that I’ve actually seen Real Steel (on a recent flight), I have to confess…this movie about a plucky little boxing robot who against all odds fights a Rocky-like bout and comes, in the people’s eyes at least, on top against an unsympathetic champion (“The Man”, if you will), all of which forms a backdrop to a classic father-son tale in which the young son helps the father to truly grow up for the first time, find redemption & self-respect and take responsibility, alongside the tale of the father possibly rekindling his long-finished romance with the daughter of the gym-owner who first trained him in boxing, overlaid with some thematic stuff about how big money is ruining the beautiful game of robot boxing…well, it all sort of works. I mean, you wouldn’t call it good, exactly, but somehow it’s put together well, and successfully hits the sort of story beats one is looking for in a movie like this. Even when the incredibly predictable moment comes in the climactic round of the climactic fight, where the robots controls have jammed and the only way for the fight to be won is for the reluctant former boxer (the father, mentioned above) to shadow box just outside the ring, and even when this breaks into the predictable slow motion images of the young son watching his father truly find himself again in this moment of basically boxing against the champion robot himself…it’s sort of what you were looking for, and it brings some level of emotional satisfaction.
Again, none of this makes this a great movie, but it does feel like a complete and cohesive entertainment experience, which is an achievement that a lot of other movies cannot boast (eg. Green Lantern, Iron Man 2, or A Good Day to Die Hard).
The movie stars Hugh Jackman, who is fine enough as the dad. It also features Evangeline Lilly from Lost as the former girlfriend / jaded gym owner with a heart of gold, and young Dakota Goyo, who does a good job as the son. The only other actor I recognized by sight was James Rebhorn, who appeared in Independence Day and The Game. The movie is based in part on a story by Richard Matheson, someone I really only knew by name but as I read up on him a bit I realize has got quite an impressive and recognizable body of work (eg 16 episodes of The Twilight Zone including the classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within”, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and a lot more.)