Real Steel is the type of movie that opens with a robot tussling with a rodeo bull at a county fair. It’s a film utterly without pretense or irony, and if there’s anything about it that earns my respect, it’s the total commitment on behalf of director Shawn Levy (the Night at the Museum movies) and producer Steven Spielberg to assembling The Best Movie Ever If You Happen To Be 12 Years Old.
In a near future where bot battles have replaced actual bloodsport, one-time contender Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) struggles to secure whatever matches he can with whichever second-hand machine he has. His debts are mounting, so when Charlie finds out that he has an illegitimate son, Max (Dakota Goyo), and a rich sister-in-law (Hope Davis) eager to take custody of the kid, he agrees to serve as temporary guardian in exchange for a chunk of cash.
If you’ve seen Over the Top, then you know the petulant son and reluctant dad are bound to bond over the sport of choice, and nothing in the screenplay – credited to three writers and loosely inspired by a Richard Matheson short story – deviates from the underdog blueprint in the least. Setbacks and surprise victories come like clockwork, the villains are heavily accented archetypes worthy of Rocky and Bullwinkle and montages are plentiful. This is a well-oiled machine composed entirely of recycled parts, and its creators make no bones about it.
It’s the relentless earnestness of Speed Racer stripped of any distinct visual excitement, and while it feels dutifully directed above all else, Levy’s work here is refreshingly focused for a director coming off a streak of slapdash comedies. The occasionally animatronic, mostly computer-generated robot effects are as slick as can be (bolstered by the solid sound design), while the bouts are mercifully clear-headed in the wake of Transformers’ metal-on-metal mayhem. Danny Elfman’s score is generically rousing, while Mauro Fiore’s cinematography reinforces the belief that this should look and feel like The Most Important Movie Ever (If You’re 12 Years Old).
Setting aside its sheen, however, the film’s greatest secret weapon is Jackman himself, playing his part to the hilt. He seems to relish the idea of playing a considerable bastard at first, willing to use his own newly orphaned son as blackmail leverage before inevitably lowering his guard, and there’s never any doubt that Jackman knows exactly what type of picture he signed up for. Besides, compared to the supporting turns by Anthony Mackie and Kevin Durand, he isn’t at risk of giving the film’s hammiest performance. I wish there was more to say about Goyo as Charlie’s son or Evangeline Lilly as Charlie’s business partner/love interest, but they’re respectively precocious and pretty in their roles, each serving exactly their purpose and doing little more than saying some seriously silly lines with a completely straight face – a commendable feat when Levy starts laying on the corniness extra thick.
Maybe the sole interesting implication of Real Steel is its suggestion of a future that plays like a feasible endgame for a generation raised to prefer digital avatars over actual sport. (The paltry box office for last month’s Warrior only reinforces that notion.) It’s all things shiny and loud for an audience plugged into all things shiny and loud; a portrayal of the triumphant human spirit in an age where humans don’t cut it anymore.