There is a reason that boxing movies have worked from the beginning of film history. The drama in the ring is heightened by events that occur outside of the ring, and a well planned climax can touch the emotions of even the most cynical of viewers. I saw the teaser trailer for this a year ago and I thought it looked like fun, even though it also looks a bit iffy due to the reliance on CGI robots. There were a lot of people who shook their heads and said that the movie world had hit bottom with a movie based on “Rock um, Sock um Robots”. Sorry you fools, that movie was made years ago, and it was called RoboJox. Five years ago we got the first Transformers movie and it is basically the same thing. When I saw that Hugh Jackman was starring in this movie, I knew it was not just going to be a special effects extravaganza. You don’t need a movie star to sell a battling robots movie. This had to be something more, and it is.
The title credits mention that the film is based on a story by Richard Matheson, well known for his work on the Twilight Zone and best known for writing the novel “I Am Legend”, which has been made into a movie three times so far. In fact, on the original Twilight Zone, Lee Marvin starred in an episode titled “Steel”, from Richard Matheson, that told the story of a guy with a fighting robot, who has to step in and pretend to be a robot to stay in the fight game. Many of the same ideas are in this film, but it would be unrealistic to imagine Hugh Jackman passing himself off as a robot with the massive creations featured with todays special effects. So, instead he is a robot fighting “trainer”, who has to find a way to make his robot a winner, using his own skills instead of computer programmed strategies. The question is, where can he get the heart to do this and win, when he is basically a broken loser in the first place? This is where the story heads off in a direction that marks this as a drama, rather than just a Science Fiction special effects film. Jackman’s character Charlie, has a son that he abandoned eleven years ago, and now he has to work out custody issues with the sister of the boy’s dead mother. The kid, “Max”, is a bright but resentful pre-teen and the rapprochement between father and son is the crux of the movie, not the fight game.
If you see the second trailer, you know how the story is going to play out. All you have to do is know that the kid is involved and you have a pretty clear idea of what is coming. There are virtually NO surprises in the movie. It follows the path of least resistance right up to the end. Yet, as I have said, there is a reason that boxing movies have worked for so long. This is a combination of “The Champ” and “Rocky” with battling robots. I have made no secret of the fact that I am a sentimentalist. It is not a result of my age, I have always worn my emotions on my sleeves and I find that movies which stir me are the ones I can care the most for. The intellect behind a film such as “Raging Bull”, can be admired for it’s frankness and willingness to look at the ugly in life, but it can’t stay in my heart the way a beat down Philadelphia club fighter managed to do. I admire films that force us to think, and I appreciate them for the questions they ask and the mirror that they sometimes hold up to our faces. At the end of the day, I would not want them to be any different. “The Wrestler” from a couple of years ago is a good example of this kind of film, it flirts with sentimentality but demands that we be realists. It is a great movie, but I saw it once and may never see it again unless someone else wants to watch it when I am around. Same thing with the movie “Eight Men Out”, which I thought was the best film of the year when it came out. I’ve seen it only once since then, and I still admire it but do not love it.
“Real Steel” is not a great movie in the sense that it is art. It is mainstream entertainment that understands that emotion is the key to bringing an audience to your movie. It is not hamfisted, the film makers don’t slap you in the face with the obvious. It is told as a good story should be told, with care and a little bit of audience manipulation. There are large sections of the movie devoted to the cardboard characters of Charlie and Max. They are needed though to make the fights mean something. The robot fighter “Atom” is a machine, but he represents the struggle of their relationship. It is the emotional bond between the father and son that needs the robot to be a surrogate heart. Everything that happens does so to bring us emotionally to the point where we want this relationship to be saved. and “Atom” is the savior.
The performers are fine. Jackman starts out as an indifferent ass, that can’t think straight enough to see the things that are obvious to everyone else. His acting meets the demands of the script, but it is a professional job not an outstanding one. The kid, is not a natural actor, but he has the right kind of face and a grace about him when he does his dancing with the robot. He sells the moxie of the kid, and the script calls for the kid to have big dreams. His is a case of casting saving a movie when acting might not have. If George Lucas had done the same kind of careful casting with the Star Wars prequels, we would have better childhood memories. This is a crowd pleasing, well made entertainment, if you have disdain for the idea going it, you will probably be surprised that there is more heart here than you expected. I had higher hopes for the movie, and it lived up to them. I’ll be able to watch this for years, and although my intellect will not grow, I know my heart will not shrink.