Dear Real Steel,
I don’t have to tell you what I thought of you walking in. You practically dare people to take a look at you and not make some kind of crack related to a certain classic childhood game involving boxing robots. Of course from the looks of you you’ll manage to do it with style, flair, and a certain level of kid-friendly wryness; but let’s be serious, was I supposed to expect you to be anywhere near good?
Sadly – or maybe happily – just like many of your chrome-coated pugilists, I got sucker punched.
You see, I think I failed to give you credit. You crafted the perfect kind of family-friendly boxing film. You used what was an inherently ridiculous premise as a means of grabbing the best of not just both worlds, but every world. You had your cake, ate it, then somehow had it still and continued to eat. You are a genius piece of marketed cinema, and the kind of methodically effective crowd-pleaser that is admirable for its sheer audaciousness and skill.
Yes, you have it all, Real Steel. You’ve got Hugh Jackman as the family-friendly-movie-drunk absentee father of a thatch-haired little moppet who is smart beyond his years. You’ve got a spunky, independent female foil cheering from the sidelines when she isn’t reminding people how great they are (if only they would remember!). And if all doesn’t go well she might lose her father’s gym. You’ve got enough underdog stories to start a series of pound-based young adult novels. Bad guys get their comeuppance from deus ex machina so that our heroes’ hands stay clean, and the nemesis is shamed but left physically unharmed.
The tale you tell (that of a down and out robot-boxer operator who ends up with custody over the 11-year-old son he long abandoned, who must find the spirit and drive to become a champion and father once more) is rote, simple, and predictable. Yet through the charm, charisma, and sheer magnetic chemistry of the two leads, Jackman and Dakota Goyo as Max, you somehow make it work oh so well. They are helped by a script that manages to make Max wise without being unbelievable, and also give him enough grit and savvy to make it on his own. He’s a great change from the usual kids in these movies who have a smart mouth but no real brains. Also to the credit of the script, what would have been the Big Break-Up-Inducing Reveal in another movie gets pretty bluntly put to bed right away. It’s nice to know we don’t have to worry about that tired old meme showing up later.
Of course the robot fights are fun in their own right; you stage them marvelously. There is an odd, visceral thrill to watching two machines hammer one another into scrap. The behemoths are given enough of a suggestion of features to make them relatable, but the remove is enough to keep us from caring too much when limbs get torn off. This is a delicate balancing act – Wall*E or Johnny 5 taking this kind of punishment would bring tears, but a dishwasher isn’t worth rooting for – and you pull it off ably.
Like I said, though, you have a slier genius at work than just a pair of good actors and fun set pieces. You see, you manage to court the thrill of a boxing film while deftly side stepping the actual concern that goes along with watching someone get repeatedly hit in the face. Had this been a film about Jackman’s character stepping back into the ring we would be flinching and hissing with each jab he takes. Instead, we get to see him reemerge as a champion by proxy. A plucky-looking robot (seriously, it looks like it was made by a kid, crooked smile and all) takes the beatings, but though his metal bends and his chassis smokes we never have to worry about him feeling pain. So everyone gets to feel victory without ever having to really suffer for it. We get all the thrill of watching Jackman and his son making it to the big leagues without ever having to see them spit blood into a bucket. Older audience members get hard-hitting action; kids get an insertion character bonding with his dad and a robot and defeating the bad guy; and everyone gets robots!
Were you a James Bond villain, someone would have to marvel at your sheer, mad genius. As a movie, though, us audience members can do nothing but sit down, give in, and cheer out loud as the junkyard underdog takes on the high gloss opponents that will never know what hit them. Much like I feel now.
With serious admiration,
Brian J. Roan