Sometimes all you're after is a simple movie about robots punching each other. A pulse-pounding brought-to-life depiction of the Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em Robots that you so longed for as a child. A film that will keep you glued to your seat as you brainlessly shovel popcorn into your mouth. And sometimes you get a retooling of "The Champ" disguised as a robot-boxing movie.
"Real Steel" is based on the short story "Steel," by Richard Matheson, about a future world where human boxing has been outlawed because of its brutality. In director Shawn Levy's new version, Hugh Jackman plays ex-boxer Charlie Kenton, who lives in the year 2020, where people have given up on human boxing, not because it's too brutal, but because it's not brutal enough. Audiences want total destruction, and so have turned to robot boxers who beat each other into scrapheaps. How it is that watching two pieces of metal hit each other is a more viscerally satisfying experience is never explained, but apparently this is gonna happen in the next eight years.
Lest you wonder about Levy's artistic aspirations in such a nakedly lowbrow milieu, he subjects us to an interminable opening shot of Jackman behind the wheel of a truck as Alexi Murdoch's "All My Days" plays:
Well I have been searching all of my days
All of my days
Many a road, you know
I've been walking on
All of my days
And I've been trying to find
What's been in my mind
As the days keep turning into night
In case it isn’t clear, Charlie's a loner… and he drives around a lot… and he still hasn’t found what he's looking for…
Charlie quickly hits a new financial bottom after his robot is destroyed by a bull (apparently bullfighting makes a comeback in the next eight years). While Charlie's still reeling from this latest setback, he's stunned to learn that an ex-girlfriend has died, and left behind a son, Max, who understandably harbors a mountain of resentment toward the father he's never known. What's weird about Max is that he knows his dad was a boxer, and is awed to learn someone was at his legendary title fight in 2014, but doesn’t have any idea if his dad won—how exactly did that happen?
Mom: Your father was a boxer.
Max: Really? Was he any good?
Mom: Well, in 2014 he fought for the title.
Max: Can I have a cookie?
As you might guess, there's some verbal sparring between father and son before they reach an understanding of sorts, the boy discovers a left-for-dead robot named—wait for it—Atom, and we're off…
Strangely, "Real Steel" possesses an almost '80s vibe of racial archetypes, from Anthony Mackie's black bookmaking hustler to Kevin Durand's loudmouth cracker to Olga Fonda's sexy/evil Russian oligarch to Karl Yune's temperamental Japanese computer genius. Didn't they have room in the script for a alcoholic Indian?
The real tragedy of "Real Steel" is that the robots, created by Jason Matthews and Tom Meyer, are awesome, and the boxing scenes are a blast. Boxing, of course, has been more reliably translated to film than any other sport, in large part because it's so visceral, personal and naked, and it's to the credit of Levy and his team that they manage not to lose all of that in scenes being fought by CGI robots.
But Levy is so determined to have his special effects movie mean something that he doesn’t go to the robot well nearly enough. Somewhere between the unbridled madness of Michael Bay and the pretentious restraint of Shawn Levy's "Real Steel" there's a really great robot-boxing movie to made. We can’t wait to see it.