Debt-ridden Charlie – guilt-ridden too after blowing a promising career – is wrong-footed by a custody battle over a son he never knew he had and doesn’t want. But young Max is a robo-boxing fan and convinces the reluctant Charlie to train up a scrapheap robot – and take a shot at the title. For all its boxing trappings, this is squarely about a father and a son.
That said, there’s plenty of smart action and humour. And Real Steel dodges and weaves in a successful attempt to avoid cliché and mawkishness. Just when you think you know the film’s next move, it hits you with a right or a left, leaving you smitten. Credit then to director Shawn Levy whose assured handling of tone and tempo bears all the hallmark of a growing talent (graduating from a pointless Pink Panther reboot to the rumbustious Night at the Museum movies and quirky romcom Date Night).
Hugh Jackman (X-Men, Australia) is perfect as Charlie, a grizzled, selfish loser ripe for redemption, but keeping it an open question whether he’ll achieve it. It’s great to see Jackman without his Wolverine persona getting his claws into something worthy of him. Cracking action scenes – from a vaguely uncomfortable robot versus rodeo bull encounter to sheeny-shiny premier league bouts – are breathlessly done.
Artfully shot, the action has the edge over the Transformers-style bang-crash CGI mash-ups of so many films. The robot fights were performed by real boxers, choreographed by boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard, then generated into robot form. Thankfully, Dakota Goyo (Thor) as Max, aged ten at the time, gives a genuinely affecting performance: check out the scene in which he plays up to a thousand boxing fans. It’d test the nerve of any seasoned actor. And it adds to the rush of exhilaration.
Again surprisingly, the plucky robot – Atom – isn’t developed as a character. It makes sense in the film; it’s just metal and wire, a means to an end, whereas it’s flesh and blood that Real Steel’s about. Unlike I, Robot there’s no interaction between the maker and the made. Levy makes you root for Atom in the ring but rightly or wrongly doesn’t explore the connection further.
Still, the hardware on show is eye-poppingly cool. From a lithe samurai-ninja Japanese robot to a multi-headed mega-bot, the visual panache and possibilities are brilliantly realised. That it can sit side-by-side by a deftly done, underplayed hint of attraction between Charlie and gym-owner Evangeline Lilly (Lost, The Hurt Locker) is yet another surprise. Edgy and air-pumping, Real Steel is more riveting than you’d think. Round 2? Yes, if this does well, a series is planned. But see this one first just in case. Real Steel? Real heart.