In the near future, where robot boxing has become a popular sport, a struggling ex-boxer/promoter (Hugh Jackman) soon finds himself bonding with his estranged 11-year-old son (Dakota Goyo) as they attempt to create a champion out of a scrappy but antiquated robot.
What we thought:
Both feature robot-on-robot smackdowns, dazzling CGI and Stephen Spielberg attached as executive producer but Real Steel wisely does all it can to be the antithesis of everything that is so vacuous and hollow about the increasingly bloated Transformers franchise. While Spielberg may lend his name to both of these robo-centric crowd-pleasers, it's clear where his mark is more acutely felt. Real Steel director Shawn Levy goes some way towards making up for his previous cinematic foibles (Cheaper by the Dozen, The Pink Panther remake, Night at the Museum) by channelling his inner-Spielberg and producing a film that places at least as much emphasis on its family dynamics and on real human emotion as it does on its action and special effects.
Real Steel wears its heart on its sleeve – almost to the degree with which it wears its very obvious influences. Like so many of today's younger filmmakers who specialise in old fashioned Hollywood blockbusters, Levy draws heavily from Spielberg's repertoire (though decidedly not as much as JJ Abrams so obviously did in the terrific Spielberg tribute Super 8) but he certainly doesn't stop there. The plot is – as many have already noted - very similar to the 1931/1979 sports drama The Champ, but, in terms of its underdog-makes-good sentimentality, Real Steel is basically Rocky with robots. Best of all, Real Steel feels like it could have been made just after Stallone's boxing masterpiece.
For a film that is set in the future and features some cutting edge CGI work, Real Steel feels gloriously and shamelessly old fashioned. Not so old fashioned, mind you, that it won't appeal to today's audiences (especially young boys) but there is something about it that will feel nostalgic to those of us who grew up on films like Short Circuit and E.T: The Extra Terrestrial – not to mention those old "Rock 'em, sock 'em Robot" games. Not only is it extremely sweet-natured but it has an unhurried, classic style of storytelling that is not only timeless but is also the perfect antidote for the headache-inducing cacophony of Transformers 3.
Then there's also the fact that the future Real Steel depicts seems much more like the sort of future someone living in the mid-20th century would come up with than what their 21st century counterparts would dream up. There is the odd fancy-shmancy looking cellphone and some of the more advanced robots are controlled by what looks like a next-next-gen gaming console but, while our current take on technology seems to be about making it more and more integrated and ubiquitous in our daily lives, the future of Real Steel is focused on technology very separate from human existence.
A more modern science fiction writer would probably depict a future in which humanity is even more connected to technological widgets than we are now; Real Steel is simply interested in a pretty "normal" world but one with robots hitting each other. Of course, considering that the film is based on a 1950s Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) short story – one that was already adapted as a Twilight Zone episode – this isn't exactly surprising, but it certainly helps Real Steel stand out from the crowd.
It also doesn't hurt that the actors who bring it to life are all dependably solid and, perhaps more importantly, immensely likeable. Hugh Jackman is as charming as ever – even when his character is acting like a total arse. Evangeline Lilly has a relatively small part but she's really kind of lovely as the nominal love interest of the piece. The most pleasant surprise of all, though, is Dakota Goyo, a child actor that is not only genuinely rather good at his craft but who avoids all the more cloying tendency of the worst "moppet" actors.
It may be unoriginal, shamelessly schmaltzy and more than a little predictable but Real Steel is one of the year's most charming feel-good family dramas. Its mixture of smashingly brutal robot dust-ups (this certainly would get a much higher classification if it were human beings beating the stuffing out of one another, rather than robots) and sweet family drama means that there is plenty to be enjoyed by both girls and boys of all ages.