Even if you don’t know his name, director Shawn Levy is one of the most successful filmmakers working today. His resume includes middling remakes such as “Cheaper By The Dozen” and “The Pink Panther,” but also a few enjoyable mainstream hits like “Date Night” and “Night at the Museum.”
However, nothing the director has done so far has been quite as impressive as his latest film, “Real Steel.” What initially appeared as a cheap take on the popular children’s action figure game Rock’Em Sock’Em Robots is actually a well-crafted sci-fi boxing film that nobody should feel ashamed about enjoying.
Loosely based on a short story by science-fiction author Richard Matheson, Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a former boxer who begins cashing in on humanoid robot boxing matches after his time spent in the limelight winds down. Kenton soon learns that his illegitimate son, Max, played by sassy young actor Dakota Goyo, is now abandoned after his mother dies.
When the careless Charlie goes to sign custody of his son over to the child’s aunt, her wealthy husband strikes a deal with him to watch the kid while they go away on a European vacation. Charlie accepts the offer, but for a price.
After that, it’s easy to say that there isn’t much new ground covered in “Real Steel.” Charlie and his son begin to bond over their mutual love of robot boxing, a sport that’s now big business throughout the world, and the movie ultimately turns into an underdog boxing story when the pair match their scrap heap robot named Atom up against the World Heavyweight Champion, Zeus.
Yet, for everything about “Real Steel” that feels familiar, it builds enough goodwill throughout its two-hour runtime that you begin to appreciate the more enjoyable aspects of the film.
For one, this is perhaps some of the best special effects work that’s been seen in some time, even putting fellow robotic blockbuster “Transformers” to shame. The film’s bots have been brought to life using a combination of CGI and practical effects such as robotic models, and throughout the film, there’s a seamless transition between the two.
For those who aren’t looking for just another movie about robots fighting, however, there are also strong performances by the entire ensemble cast. Besides Jackman and Goyo, “Lost” star Evangeline Lilly turns in a solid performance as Kenton’s love interest, and actors Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand and Hope Davis all arrive to share in the fun.
Mackie, formerly of “The Hurt Locker” fame, makes a brief but memorable performance as an underground organizer of robot boxing matches. His character, Finn, represents the seedy underbelly of this new world of boxing, and Mackie gives his best in the role.
It’s Charlie’s relationship with his son that really propels the film forward, even over all the robot bashing, but it can also be the film’s biggest weakness. While the pair shares several thrilling misadventures, such as when a vicious debt collector comes searching for Charlie toward the end, sometimes the interaction between the two feels overly sentimental and formulaic.
Many times, “Real Steel” takes the road less traveled in mainstream crowd pleasers of this nature. Jackman’s character is thoroughly unlikeable from the start, but the relationship with his son slowly makes him come around to both the character and the audience. By film’s end, though, there are a few too many moments of them staring at each other and weeping in slow motion for you to fully invest yourself in their relationship.
What starts as a strong sci-fi adventure ends the same way it began. Even if its more introspective moments lead the audience’s mind to wander, the film sustains its entertainment value throughout.
This is a feat for director Levy, especially since better filmmakers such as Kenneth Branagh have failed at mixing sci-fi spectacle with family drama in recent films such as “Thor,” and leads many to wonder what’s next for this talented director.
“Real Steel” is a film that won’t likely be taken seriously by many, and thankfully, it doesn’t take itself that seriously, either. It’s a sci-fi “Rocky” that doesn’t always come through, but because its heart is in the right place, it ultimately shines as an effective crowd pleaser after a summer of blockbusters filled with false spectacle.