Real Steel (Touchstone Pictures), a heartwarming sci-fi sports movie about a father and son who reunite through robot boxing, testifies to the formidable power of ridiculousness. Here’s a short list of what a ticket to Real Steel gets you: a wrestling match of bull vs. robot, not one but several synchronized robot dance routines, and a robot doing “The Robot.” Indeed, Real Steel is one self-aware robot movie. As Hugh Jackman’s Charlie insists, when describing one of his own dramatic flourishes: “It’s a show. People want to see something they haven’t seen.” As formulaic as Real Steel may be, the movie’s willingness to be silly offers many unexampled moments. If you’ve ever wondered to yourself, as I did early on in my viewing, “Does rope-a-dope work with robots?” Real Steel will provide your answer.
The story line of Real Steel begins with one of cinema’s least threatening robot uprisings: Robots have taken over the boxing ring, sending the good-old-fashioned red-blooded boxers out of the arenas and into the unemployment lines. Given this promising setup, the Detroit filming locations, and the populist pride that’s fuel-injected into the film, I’d like to report that Real Steel is a stealth critique of the alienation of labor. The film champions the supreme might of man and machine working in unison, a combination that ultimately wins out over the soulless tech geekery which aims to outmode workers altogether. This conceit is the furious subtext for all the metal-on-metal action. Or maybe it’s just an excuse for fighting robots.
And there are a lot of fighting robots. Thankfully, the script smartly builds from Bloodsport-style back-alley brawls (except with robots) to semi-official smokers (except with robots) to the more gentlemanly skull-wrenching of the WRB (World Robot Boxing league). In this way, the film’s bouts of Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots offer sufficient variety to maintain most moviegoers’ interest. Moreover, what the fight sequences lack in dazzle (especially compared to the robo-battles of Michael Bay), they make up for in basic coherence: Unlike in the Transformers trilogy, in Real Steel you always know which robot is fighting which and why.
Beneath this titanium-plated exterior, though, pulses a mushy heart. Real Steel’s human drama is wrought between deadbeat dad Charlie (Hugh Jackman), his abandoned but headstrong son Max (Dakota Goyo, who resembles Jake Lloyd but at the very least has better dance moves), and love interest Bailey Tallet (Lost’s Evangeline Lilly). Jackman is the rare actor who can do brawn with grace, and his charisma and charm frequently save the script (some of the more ham-fisted clunkers land with the force of a WRB heavyweight). Lilly is strong and her Tallet is sexy and self-assured, which is exactly what left me wondering why her character is always relegated to keeping house for nonattendant men.
A few vital nuts and bolts also deserve mention. The cinematography is crisp and panoramic, pretty over popcorn. The special effects and the sound design manage to achieve a believable level of realism, rarely drawing attention to themselves. And Danny Elfman is credited as having composed the score, though the works of Marshall Mathers feature more prominently. Indeed, the only thing that’s overtly grating in Real Steel is the product placement. (Spoiler alert: In the not-so-distant future, no one drinks anything but Budweisers.)
If Real Steel resembles any one film above all the others, it’s the 1987 arm wrestling drama Over the Top. The sport may be different, but the rest of the movie is essentially the same. (In Over The Top, Sylvester Stallone similarly plays a deadbeat dad who must win back his son and the title.) When I was 7 and saw Over The Top, I saw no irony in its moniker, even during a slow-motion close-up of two battling hands. (The film gets its title from Stallone’s finishing move, a special grip known as going “over the top.”) While Real Steel is similarly ludicrous, I predict it will play like a masterpiece with 7-year-olds.
As Slate’s Farhad Manjoo detailed in his recent series “The Robot Invasion,” robots may or may not be gunning for your job. More certain, however, is that they’re already replacing our action stars. The Van Dammes and Willises and Schwarzeneggers put up their dukes in the ’80s and ’90s, but in the 21st century robots and other CGI mammoths mostly fight our battles for us—and the LaBeoufs mostly cheer and look on. One rickety line of Real Steel exposition begins to explain why this may be: “[With humans] you couldn’t give the people what they wanted: True. No holds barred. Violence.” With robots Hollywood can do that, and it can be PG-13.