For a superstar with unbelievable looks, charm, versatility and range, it is positively astounding how much time and energy Hugh Jackman wastes on mediocre movies. So from the previews, I dreaded Real Steel. An action flick about boxing robots? I made plans to be out of town. Well, I guess there’s no fool like an old fool. I have seen Real Steel. Get ready. It is exciting, palpitating, surprisingly fresh, action-packed, double-barreled dynamite.
In a futuristic time zone where everything looks like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Mr. Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a scruffy, drunken roustabout who used to be a boxer before the public got tired of watching re-runs of Fight Club and replaced humans in the ring with million-dollar monolithic robots pounding each other to scrap metal. Once a promising pugilist, Charlie fell on hard times with the rising popularity of the new sport called “robot boxing” that replaced men with machines. Ten years later, his ex-wife dies suddenly, leaving him with a son named Max he has never met, and the irresponsible Charlie, reduced to grifting his way through the county fair circuit promoting fights between robots and 800-pound bulls, finds himself at the end of his rope, broke and saddled with a kid he doesn’t want. The boy’s aunt (the always wonderful Hope Davis) wants to adopt Max, so Charlie sells him secretly to her rich husband for $100,000, taking half the money up front to invest in parts for a new robot. The condition is that he must take custody of the kid until the relatives return from their vacation at the end of the summer. What happens next owes more than a little to both Frankenstein, as the man-made creatures take on lives of their own, and the Wallace Beery-Jackie Cooper classic The Champ, as father and son learn to bond, the kid becomes a partner and a helpmate, his dad grows up, and everyone turns into a better person. There is also a grown-up love story between Charlie, who treats people with the same disregard as he shows his robots, and Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), the daughter of the man who used to be Charlie’s trainer in the boxing ring, and a girl who ekes out a living designing robots.
Make no mistake. I was rooting for the robots. Operated by a command matrix in a remote-control box that looks like a sci-fi version of the iPhone, they steal the picture. Like the horse puppets in the Broadway show War Horse (soon to be a movie by Steven Spielberg), they have individual personalities and compete for attention like golden retrievers. First, there’s a killer called Noisy Boy, a World Robot League champion who gets demolished in its first fight, losing Charlie his entire investment. Then Max, who becomes obsessed with the sport, rescues a discarded robot from a junkyard, refurbishes it from rusty metal pieces of other robots, names it Atom, and teaches it to dance, giving the crowd an extra comedy element. Max teaches Atom rhythm, Charlie teaches him to box, and it’s a robot career on the rise. The owners of Zeus, the undefeated robot king, are impressed enough with Atom’s early matches to offer $200,000 to make it a sparring partner for Zeus, which would solve Charlie’s financial problems, but the kid refuses to sell. It’s inevitable where this is leading—the junkyard underdog must eventually have to face the terrifying Zeus in the Real Steel Championship fight in New York City.
O.K., so the target audience for Real Steel is 12-year-old boys who love video games. They won’t give a hoot about the romantic subplot, or how Charlie gets his mojo back. But director Shawn Levy, writer John Gatins and those animatronic robots guarantee nonstop action, danger and suspense. The final bout, with Mr. Jackman feeding every move to the dazed Atom by shadow boxing while the crowd goes wild, is every bit as exciting as any fight scene ever captured on film. As terrific as Mr. Jackman is, he is matched scene for scene by Dakota Goyo, a young actor who is going places. Real Steel is so not my kind of movie that I am still pinching myself. Hard to believe I liked it as much as I did. Like Moneyball, this is real movie making that packs a solid entertainment punch, proving it doesn’t matter what the genre is if genuinely talented and dedicated people are pulling the strings instead of hacks.
Running Time 127 minutes
Written by John Gatins, Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven
Directed by Shawn Levy
Starring Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly and Dakota Goyo