People love when something defies expectations. It makes for the best stories in real life as well as on the silver screen and gives you the warm fuzzies that are rare in studio films today. Real Steel is no different in this respect, being that it’s an underdog story on-screen as well as in this year’s box office. Let’s be honest, most fans reading this article are probably down with any type of fighting robots. But not too many people actually expected a good movie when they saw the trailer or read the synopsis of this film. And that’s why Real Steel will catch you off-guard and punch you right in the gut… in a good way.
Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a down on his luck ex-boxer (the real thing, not robots) that owes too much money to too many bad people because of his misadventures in the underground robot fighting circuit. To make his already meager life worse, his ex-girlfriend passes away unexpectedly leaving him with their eleven-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo) whom he barely knows. Jackman really shines in this film and gives it his all, making every potentially silly scene work with his passion and gravitas. It could be his best role since the original X-men because of Jackman’s undeniable chemistry with younger actors. His best character moment scenes in X1 as Wolverine were his crass big-brother moments with young Rogue, and the same goes for Real Steel. As he grumpily bumbles his way into cultivating a real relationship with Max, you can’t help but laugh and really grow to love Charlie along the way.
The supporting cast is also surprisingly strong. Evangeline Lilly plays Jackman’s love interest Bailey Tallet with adorable charm and unexpected strength. I was a fan of LOST, but she was such a frumpy wet blanket on that show that I never expected she had the ability to turn a switch and be as warm and endearing as she is here. Newcomer Dakota Goyo as Max Kenton doesn’t fare as well, but still manages to put in an admirable debut performance. Just prepare yourselves, viewers. There are a handful of “annoying kid moments”. Goyo is not helped by the fact that at times he bears an uncanny resemblance to Jake Lloyd’s young Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace. I kept fearing a “now this is pod-racing!” type scene at any moment. But director Shawn Levy wisely manages to reign those kiddie moments in and keep them from ruining the experience for the adults in attendance.
Now let’s get to the part that originally sold people on this movie: The robots! Those magnificent robots! The mixed use of animatronics and CG that bring them to life is flawless, and worth the price of admission. From the past-it’s-prime and beat up robot named “Ambush” that Charlie starts out with on the rodeo circuit, to the current high-tech robot champ “Zeus,” the designs are incredibly cool, but Max’s discovery and rebuilding of an abandoned sparring-bot named “Atom” is the emotional core of the movie. Elements like Atom’s smiley-face scar on his mesh faceplate, his pre-fight dance routines with Max to hype the crowds (not as cheesy as it sounds), to the absolute beatings he continually gets up from in the ring – he will win you over. No doubt comparisons to Rocky and other great underdog tales will be thrown around, not to mention the parallels with Iron Giant based on Atom’s visual design and relationship with Max.
All gushing aside, do taper your expectations a bit. It’s not a perfect film. The human “villains” are cartoon-ish, cliched and quite frankly rather boring. You never really hate or enjoy their evilness. They’re just kind of there to move the plot along until the next robot throw-down. And some of the dialogue can’t be saved even by the strong performances of the film’s leads. “I want you to fight for me, Dad”. *groan* But really all the negatives are forgivable and short lived with their limited actual screen time. Another wise decision by Levy.
I’m not sure there’s been a movie so far this year that has left me with that goofy feel-good giddy that I had walking out of Real Steel. Sure, I adored Captain America and loved X-men: First Class. And Moneyball was an interesting and well done flick. But this film is a pure popcorn blast to your dome wrapped up in a warm robotic hug. And judging by the random bursts of audience applause throughout my screening, this film should play very well to all demographics and have strong word of mouth. Wouldn’t be surprised if this underdog is the sleeper hit of the year.