If you go out to a restaurant and order a steak and a baked potato, you’re expecting a simple, filling meal. What will turn it into a dining experience is the preparation and execution by the chef. When you have a steak that’s been tenderized and perfectly spiced, served sizzling with a potato loaded with butter, sour cream, cheese and bacon, it rises above what would have been a ho-hum standard meal.
That’s what you have with Real Steel. The elements of the story are not new; they’re in almost any movie about boxing. Even the idea of robot boxers isn’t new. The film credits a story by Richard Matheson as inspiration. It was filmed before as an episode of the original Twilight Zone (“Steel” staring Lee Marvin) and originally aired in October 1963, 48 years and 3 days before the release of Real Steel. When I first heard about this movie, my initial thought was this is going to be so bad! I didn’t bother mentioning it in my fall preview. But the word-of-mouth buzz about the film was good, so I decided to see it. I’m glad I did.
In the near future, fighters have been replaced by robots. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a former boxer who now manages a robot fighter. Charlie’s down on his luck, to the point that he takes a fight offered by Ricky (Kevin Durand), a Texas good ol’ boy who had beat Charlie in the ring years before. The fight pits Charlie’s robot against a huge bull at a backwater county fair. It doesn’t end well and Charlie has to run because of a foolish bet he made. Before he hightails it, though, he’s informed that his former lover has died, leaving him the custodian of his 11 year old son, Max (Dakota Goyo).
Max’s aunt Debra (Hope Davis) and her wealthy husband Marvin (James Rebhorn) are suing for custody. Charlie would gladly let them have Max, who he hasn’t seen since he was an infant. But then Charlie sees a way to profit from the situation. In the end Charlie ends up with Max for the summer and fifty thousand dollars for a new fighter. After initial resentment, Charlie learns Max is a total fan of robot boxing. Charlie purchases a much better robot but ends up squandering his good fortune.
During a midnight parts run to a wrecking yard, Max discovers (in about the hardest way possible) an old but intact robot named Adam. With the help of Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly), a boxing gym owner who’s moved into maintaining robot fighters, they get Adam – renamed Atom – into fighting shape. Charlie and Max discover their skills dovetail, and between them they take Atom to bigger and better fight venues. Standing at the top of the robot pyramid, though, is Zeus, a heavy-weight destroyer created by the greatest robot designer, Tak Mashido (Karl Yune), and managed by the rich and beautiful Farra Lemkova (Olga Fonda).
Director Shawn Levy is known mostly for his comedy work (Night at the Museum, the Steve Martin remakes of Cheaper by the Dozen and The Pink Panther). With last year’s Date Night, he blended both action and comedy beautifully. Like a master chef, his execution of what could have been a by-the-numbers Rocky ripoff raises the movie to a much higher level. Preparation is another factor in this being a good movie. For the boxing, they hired Sugar Ray Leonard as a technical advisor. Leonard designed the boxing styles for all of the robots, using elements from actual fighters. In doing so, Real Steel becomes a tutorial on the sweet science of boxing. Leonard also worked with Jackman to perfect his embodiment of a boxer.
Even in poor movies (Australia, X-men Origins: Wolverine) Hugh Jackman shines. With a good movie like this one, he blazes. Charlie is a wastrel, but he’s also fully aware of his deficiencies, and with Max’s help he strives for redemption. Evangeline Lilly’s Bailey is what she’s supposed to be, a support for Charlie with a lot of history behind them. She handles the role with an easy grace. The breakout performer of the movie is Dakota Goyo as Max. He’s a veteran performer in his native Canada, and appeared in Thor earlier this year, playing the young Thor. Normally the kid in a boxing movie is there to vent emotion – think Ricky Schroder in The Champ, which was recently named the saddest movie in film history. In Real Steel, Max is a full participant as well as a realistic kid.
Screenwriters Dan Gilroy (story) and John Gatins (screenplay) have infused freshness into the movie by not always going the rote way with the story. Aunt Debra and Marvin could have been total stereotypes for cheap conflict, but instead they’re sympathetic and supportive. The score could have overwhelmed the movie for fake emotional impact. Composer Danny Elfman has gone that way before with the Tim Burton Batman movies. Instead, he keeps the music restrained until it rises to aid in the climatic match.
Movies can be escapist fantasies, but they can also tap into the emotions of the country. During the Depression, movies often gave those who were near rock bottom the chance to feel like winners – the chance to feel hope again. In that sense, Real Steel may be the perfect movie for these times, when so many people feel like underdogs.