MRR Movie Review: "Real Steel"

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Hugh Jackman stars in this 2011 robot-themed film directed by Shawn Levy. Set in the near future, a father and son duo are caught up in a robo-boxing tournament where 2,000 lb. machines do battle with one another. Dakota Goyo plays the abandoned son of Hugh Jackman's character, whose a deadbeat dad/boxer put out of work by the exploding popularity of metal-on-metal fisticuffs. Also starring Evangeline Lilly, Kevin Durand and Anthony Mackie.
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Movie Review: "Real Steel"

Rating: PG-13 (action, violence, and language)
Length: 127 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 7, 2011
Directed by: Shawn Levy
Genre: Drama, Sport, and Science Fiction

At first glance, it is easy to dismiss "Real Steel" as a movie that mimics the Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots toy. After all, the Hasbro game Battleship inspired a movie. Giant robots might also remind audiences of the recent "Transformers" movies, but this film has a considerably different type of artificial intelligence in action. The script was adapted-by writers John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, and Jeremy Leven-from a short story written by Richard Matheson in 1956. This story had been previously used in an episode of "The Twilight Zone." Instead of an all-out intergalactic war story, this is a father/son tale that just so happens to involve a human-size boxing robot.

Directed by Shawn Levy ("Night at the Museum"), the film takes place in a futuristic world in which human competitors have been replaced by robotic boxers. In a way, the machines act as avatars or surrogates for their owners because they are controlled by voice command. There is an official WRB (World Robot Boxing) League and an underground boxing scene that is brutal like its human predecessor. This aspect of the film makes one consider the current practice of robots replacing humans in the workplace and on the battlefield. We also rely more on metal and plastic parts to replace failing body parts. Humans wish for immortality, but the machines in "Real Steel" offer a reminder that they need upkeep to avoid ending up in the junk pile.

The centerpiece of "Real Steel" is the father/son relationship between Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) and Max Kenton (Dakota Goyo). Charlie is a hardscrabble, drifting boxing manager. He has no shortage of gambling debts and has enemies as a consequence. Reality hits him when he's informed that his son's estranged mother has died. He gives her sister and fiancé custody of Max for $100,000 and agrees to take care of the boy while they are on a preplanned European vacation.

Although the pacing of this aspect will probably be evident to anyone that has seen movie or television shows focusing on daddy issues, the plot does not get derailed by dramatic moments; they are enhancements. The characters each have equal agency in driving the plot instead of just reacting to the things that happen to them. Jackman and Goyo work well together, which makes their relationship believable. They work together in championing a junked, obsolete sparring robot-named Atom-in fights against the WRB's biggest stars. The tension in scenes is increased because the audience is invested in the relationship.

Often movies that try to mesh compelling human drama with exciting action either only do justice for one aspect or miserably fail both. "Real Steel" packs a one-two punch for both, presenting a convincing story for the human characters while delivering heart-pounding boxing ring scenes. Although it has been saddled with a PG-13 rating-which may have been a detriment to its box office success-this film really doesn't offer anything that would detract from its appropriateness for the entire family, although it does have some darker moments that involve adults physically fighting.

Of course many people will be drawn to the film for the robots and the boxing action. There is heavy CGI work in these sequences; however, they are believable. Each robot has its own unique fighting style or configuration. For instance, Twin Cities is a two-headed fighter. Each robot also gives some kind of look into the "Real Steel" universe, making the robots more than just eye candy. They are very much a part of this future world, a credit to the director. But those who seek more of a back story or mythology about this fictional universe will not be fully satisfied-Levy is planning a sequel which will hopefully flesh it out more. The world building in this 127-minute initial installment is sparse, and it is obvious that a sequel has been planned. Even so, the components of focus are developed, even if there are some deliberate narrative loose ends.

Overall, this film presents an enjoyable story with highly engaging moments. It is truly an underdog story, and there are plenty of obstacles to overcome and reasons to cheer. The only thing that could have made "Real Steel" more enjoyable would have been a cameo by "Mythbusters" star Grant Imahara. Before he was known for helping to determine plausibility or implausibility, he built a radio-controlled machine for the television series "Battlebots." Oh, the irony.