I liked the fighting robots in Real Steel a little more than the fighting robots in Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon. I’m also coming to grips with the fact that I live in a time when the consumer has demanded that there be two fighting robot movies to chose from in a given year. Here in Real Steel the fighting robots are fighting for sport, not for freedom.
Real Steel tells two well-worn stories, the story of that father saddled with a young child that he never cared to raise and the inevitable closeness that ensues, and the story of a down and out boxer with one more shot at the title. The father is Hugh Jackman and he controls the boxer, who is made out of metal and responds to voice commands. I think. The movie isn’t particularly clear about how Atom, the mechanical fighter, is controlled.
We’re in the near future, far enough ahead that humanoid robots have enough range of movement to make a fight between them worth watching but recent enough that “redonkulous” is still in the lexicon. Jackman is a philandering ex-boxer (one of the last human boxers) and now he goes around the country dragging broken down bots to county fairs and underground fight rings where he runs out on the promoters after he writes checks his robots can’t cash. In this world there is a professional league for mechanical fighting but Jackman and his robotic palookas are relegated to exhibitions where, in on case, his bots take on a live bull. When Lumiere invented the cinema, did he imagine that one day his creation would produce an image of a robot decking a bull in the head? I dunno. Perhaps Méliès imagined that.
Jackman learns that he has a son, now about 10. He wants no part of the child and truly the kid would be better off with his uncle and aunt anyway, but Jackman, always the opportunist, decides to sell his rights to the kid for enough money to buy another bot, only he gets to look after him for 3 months while the wealthy couple goes to Italy. The kid, Max (Dakota Goyo), is understandably nonplussed to be paired with a father that has been a nonentity in the past and a huckster in the present, but guess what, Max loves robot boxing. While in a junkyard looking to steal parts they happen upon Atom, the little robot that wouldn’t quit.
The rest of this is fairly by-the-numbers, except a little rougher, both in the storytelling and in the dialogue and the example for children. Real Steel is really for small boys, a sort of Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots: the Movie, and that’s fine, but usually in these movies, the father learns a little something about becoming more responsible and that doesn’t really happen here. He just seems to like the kid, in so much as he can work with robots. Also it leaves its custody subplot, among others, dangling.
The movie is further uncertain about how to treat the robots, they exist primarily as extensions of their controllers but there is some effort on the side of the filmmakers to treat them like horses in a horse race. Except the horses, while unaware of the competition, are alive. These bots are more like Herbie the Love Bug but with less personality. Atom, for example, has blue eyes, for what, I’m not sure, that reminded me of the thing from Attack the Block (2011) and on the whole it looks like Gort. Nobody roots for Gort.
Max and his father have Atom rising the ranks in the boxing world and soon he’s at the top level, where we are pleased to discover that ESPN is still around and still using it’s 2011 logo. However, sports analysis has come to this: “Jim, the champ’s power core is clearly depleted.” Real Steel is not a very good movie, it lacks the sure hand of its familiar material that Warrior had and never has us connect to its core purpose. When I was a kid we used to have tournaments to find out who was better than who at Street Fighter II on the Super Nintendo, we used to get every excited and the competition was fierce, even then, though, I didn’t think they’d make a movie out of it.