I think the most surprising statement I’ll make this entire year is this: I liked “Real Steel”. From my perspective, everything about this film’s trailer pointed to disaster. The all too familiar story of a crummy father grudgingly paired with the son he’s never been there for mixed with radio controlled robot boxing. Sound exciting? Well, actually it is. There’s no denying the silliness of the concept on the surface. There’s also no denying that the film uses several clichés and plot devices that we’ve seen before. Yet as predictable as it is, the story has heart and it manages to take a ridiculous idea and make it pure and simple fun.
Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a failed father and ex-boxer who travels to county fairs and pool halls with his robot boxer in tow. Charlie loses an ill-advised bet that he doesn’t have the cash to back and he has his mechanical meal ticket destroyed in the process. After his ex-girlfriend dies, Charlie is summoned to a court hearing that will determine custody his son Max (Dakota Moya) who he hasn’t seen in years. His ex-girlfriend’s rich sister and brother-in-law want the boy so Charlie comes up with a plan to sign over custody for $100,000 but he’ll have to keep Max for the summer while the couple is away in Europe.
There’s absolutely no reason to like Charlie. He’s immature, irresponsible, and self-absorbed. But just like every other character Jackman has played, there is something genuinely attractive about Charlie. Jackman brings out an almost natural likability with his performances. Charlie has a certain charm and personality that Jackman nails. You’ll shake your head in disgust at how he flippantly disregards his son but cheer him on through every boxing match. The biggest problem with the character is that his immaturity is a bit overdone. There are a couple of scenes where 11 year-old Max is speaking to his father like I would to my 3 year-old who I caught pulling the cat’s tail. Speaking of Max, Moya does a really nice job selling this hurt and hardened kid to the audience. He does fall victim to a few cheesy lines of dialogue and his occasional potty mouth did nothing to endear the character to me. But for the most part he’s believable as is his relationship to Charlie.
The film takes an almost ‘sports underdog movie’ turn after they find a junked sparring robot. Max immediately adopts the robot and calls him Atom. It’s Atom that plays a key role in bringing father and son together. The pair begin entering Atom into small time fights and notice he’s a little tougher than Charlie gave him credit for. There’s also hints that he may be more than just a lot of metal parts and circuitry.
That brings me to the wonderful special effects presented through a solid mix of computer generated images and animatronic props. The robots look amazing and they perfectly meld into the real world environments around them. This is especially impressive in the numerous scenes with the robots and real human characters together in cramped areas. The fight scenes are loud and bone-jarring and I couldn’t help but smile watching my son take it all in. Believe it or not, this silly concept is so visually flawless that I couldn’t help but be drawn in.
“Real Steel” is a little hammy and it’s very predictable. But it never takes itself too seriously and it knows exactly what it wants to be. It’s a little contrived in some parts but as a dad, even I couldn’t help but get a little misty during a few scenes. Most importantly “Real Steel” is fun. The characters are fun. The robots are fun. The fight sequences are fun. And most importantly, sitting next to my son in the theater soaking all of this up was fun. That’s good enough for me.