The Hollywood sports movie and science fiction collide, in this corn-fest of well-worn movie tropes, with surprisingly pleasant results.
Real Steel is a 2011 American science fiction, sports film starring Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lily, and Dakota Goyo, co-produced and directed by Shawn Levy for DreamWorks Pictures. The film is an adaptation of the short story “Steel,” written by Richard Matheson, initially published in the May 1956 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and later adapted into a 1963 Twilight Zone episode, which some fans may remember, that featured Lee Marvin.
A long time ago, Hollywood discovered the since time-honored cliche of the sports movie, that told the sentimental tale of an underdog contender going up against almost insurmountable odds, and contrary to all the laws of probability, winning. Audiences ate it up, so Hollywood did it again, and again, and again. – you get my drift.
Another titan of movie cliches is the story of a down on his luck guy (re underdog) whose past finally catches up with him through a long lost family member. The relationship starts out rocky, in fact, they want nothing to do with each other, until something comes along that suddenly acts as a catalyst that causes them to bond, and rekindles the lost familial love.
Put these two together, and you have the corn-a-palooza that is Real Steel, a movie that takes these well-worn ingredients, puts on a new coat of paint, and somehow manages to make them into a thoroughly enjoyable film, despite its flimsy and cornball premise.
Hugh Jackman, as Charlie Kenton, the chief protagonist, a former boxer that almost made it to being champ is a big part of what makes this film work as well it does. Evangeline Lily makes an enjoyable contribution to the movie in her role as the tough, (but kind-hearted) pragmatic woman in his life that despite herself falls for Jackman’s compulsive gambler, loser of a man, character. She see’s something in him, and just like girls everywhere, thinks he’s a project she can rebuild and repair.
Dakota Goyo as Charlie’s estranged, defensively rude and arrogant son Max is, well, you know, kid actors, but he does his best I am sure. There’s also the obstacle of Charlie’s sister, who wants to adopt Max, and has a wealthy husband who can spoil the hell out of the kid, and the kid knows it.
Anyway, this film telegraphs the happy ending it has in store for its conclusion long before the bell for the first round rings, but the thing is, the story it tells is an enjoyable journey anyway. As required, Charlie is his own worst enemy. The film’s other characters and the robot fighters it features are also a big part of what makes this movie enjoyable.
Kevin Durand as Ricky the villainous antagonist in the film is at his intimidating, and unsavory best, in this role as the sadistic, asshole ex-boxer, who once defeated Charlie in the ring, and whose character serves as a device to remind Charlie of his past and how he was always a loser. Durand plays an evil unlikable jerk and excels in the role.
Charlie owes him money for a bet he walked out on, and Ricky pursues him throughout the film to collect in more than money. When Ricky’s lousy karma finally catches up with him, it’s one of the movie’s most satisfying moments. Can I have extra corn with that, please?
Of course, the real hero of this film is Atom, an antiquated sparring-model robot, that Max stumbles upon in a junkyard. Atom’s design works well in the movie, in the world of robot boxing he occupies, his generic near human appearance makes him seem almost handsome compared to the other robot freaks that appear in the film.
Atom turns out to be the miracle it takes to fix all of Charlie’s problems, his sagging self-esteem, his relationship with his estranged son, his downward spiral in life, cures him of cancer and everything else. Atom is the movie’s magic negro in robot form.
The film’s robots are also a big part of what makes this movie delightful, and fun. Partly created by CGI, and part animatronic stop-motion, the results are genuinely, and amazingly marvelous. Robot characters like Noisy Boy, Midas, Twin Cities, and Zeus, parade through the movie and are a big part of what makes it enjoyable and fun. It makes me wonder why there aren’t more robot sports movies produced. Their colorful and unique appearances have an appeal similar to that of professional wrestling, only better, and more science fiction-y.
The film concludes with a climactic championship fight between Atom and Zeus, an intimidating goliath of a robot. He seems like a nightmare machine designed for destruction, compared to Atom’s relatively human appearance. Although technically, Zeus wins the fight, Atom, Charlie, and Max earn a symbolic and poetic victory that signals the film’s tearjerker of a happy ending that nearly outdoes every other sports film of this kind ever made.
Talk of a sequel, with the original cast reprising their roles, has been bounced around by the movie’s creators and creative staff, since the film’s release, but with the passage of time, sadly, it looks less likely to become a reality.