Is Real Steel the real deal?
Shawn Levy directs Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo and Lost‘s Evangeline Lilly in Real Steel. Charlie Kenton (Jackman), a washed-up, one-time professional boxer, finds out that his ex-girlfriend has died, leaving him custody of their son, Max (Goyo). However, Charlie is not the responsible type. Despite their difficulties, father and son get to know each other by entering mechanised boxing matches with their robot Atom.
Much of the story points towards an underdog tale. Charlie once had a shot at the human boxing big time, but when audiences wanted more violence, robot boxing became the norm.
Running alongside the premise of robot boxing is the relationship between Charlie and his 11-year-old son, Max. There is a surprising amount of emotional substance surrounding their relationship. This emotional substance is compounded when Max finds Atom abandoned and half-buried in a scrapyard.
Levy takes great care in giving Atom a sense of emotion. The robot looks much more human than the other fighting machines, and the two main characters invest much emotion in him.
Atom parallels both Charlie and Max at different points in the film. For Goyo’s character, Atom is both the unwanted, abandoned figure that he sees himself to be. At other times, the robot is also a father figure.
Initially, Atom is an inconvenience for Charlie, much like Max is. Over time, Atom becomes financially useful to Charlie, before he finally holds some emotional value. Max goes through much of the same process as Atom. Consequently, Atom is the linchpin around which Charlie and Max’s relationship develops. Furthermore, there’s also a sense that in his emotional connection to Max and Atom, Charlie discovers some self-worth and gets another shot at the big time, albeit vicariously.
In terms of characters, Jackman plays his usual rogue. However, at times his character is difficult to like, as Jackman portrays a man as unsympathetic and emotionally devoid as the machines he sends into the boxing ring. Jackman could have placed more desperation in this flawed character, since we see Charlie is on a downward spiral from his introduction in the film.
Goyo performs excellently as Charlie’s son. He also bears a striking resemblance to Jake Lloyd, the child actor who played Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace. I couldn’t help but think that if George Lucas had held off with the Star Wars prequels then the first in the three would’ve benefitted from Goyo’s acting talent.
Spill.com said that Lilly was underused, but her authentic performance makes up for any lack of screen time. Her character, Bailey Tallet, also brings warmth to Jackman’s cold character, despite having problems of her own.
There’s the suggestion of a family unit in Charlie, Bailey, Max and Atom. Thankfully, Levy doesn’t indulge in the obvious nor spoon-feed the audience in this regard.
Visually, the robots look awesome! They vary in their design, which, unlike Transformers, makes telling the robots apart very easy. In addition, the differences in the robot designs showed off a great deal of imagination.
In one particular scene, Charlie and Max walk through a ‘warm-up’ area for the robot boxers. Levy produces a suitably tense atmosphere full of unusual sights and sounds. However, Levy does well to give a sense that robot boxing is nothing unusual to this not-too-distant futuristic world or its characters.
I really enjoyed this film. It’s not a blockbuster, but it is a fun ride to end the summer with. There are some slow moments and Charlie’s recklessness is sometimes unbelievable in the earlier parts of the film. In that regard, this film is more of a standing eight-count than a knock out. However, I would say it’s definitely worth more than a rental. If you’re looking for a fun sci-fi with emotional substance, then Real Steel is worth your time and money.