Will Sylvester Stallone receive residuals from Real Steel? He certainly should, and by the boatload, given the way in which Shawn Levy’s sci-fi robot-boxing film apes not only Rocky’s underdog-makes-good trajectory and in-ring finale, but also Over the Top‘s dynamic of a father making amends with the son he abandoned by beating the athletic odds while driving across expansive, picturesque country in a big rig. Suffice it to say, this uplifting sports movie, loosely based on Richard Matheson’s short story “Steel,” has little new to offer anyone over the age of 10, but then, that’s about its target audience, who will also be unlikely to notice the overarching imprint of executive-producer Steven Spielberg on the dads-and-boys-fighting-‘bots-amid-Midwestern-cornfields proceedings.
Still, if familiarity is endemic to this feel-good drama, there’s nonetheless also something to be said for competent amalgamation and regurgitation of tired genre tropes. In that respect, Levy’s latest, after the squandered-potential flaccidness of his Date Night, is a mildly well-oiled machine, delivering hardship, redemption and rock-‘em-sock-‘em fisticuffs—much of it shot in sparkling daylight and lovely magic-hour hues, or in glistening arena-neon flashiness—with enough proficiency to make its schmaltz go down relatively smoothly.
Set in a near future where human pugilists have been relegated obsolete in favor of gigantic robots that are remote-controlled by managers and can literally destroy their automated opponents, Real Steel is a straightforward adolescent video game-inspired fantasy. At the center of this rise-to-glory fairy tale is down-on-his-luck Charlie (Hugh Jackman), a former boxer and current underground robot-fighting circuit huckster whose only interest is in making a quick buck and, more often than not, evading those to whom he inevitably winds up owing money. When his ex dies and he’s confronted with having to take custody of his 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo), Charlie cuts a deal with the boy’s wealthy uncle (James Rebhorn) to sign the kid over to his aunt (Hope Davis) for $100,000 after watching him for the summer, a scheme complicated by the fact that Max is a feisty take-no-bull kid who slowly teaches Charlie how to love again. That process involves Max discovering a sparring robot named Atom and, against all odds, training him with Charlie to become a world-championship contender, no surprise given that like Charlie and Max, two individuals who’ve suffered their fair share of hard knocks, Atom is built to withstand enormous punishment and keep on coming.
On the other side of standard montages, a nonsensical culture-clash conflict between an African-American wheeler-dealer (Anthony Mackie) and a thuggish cowboy (Kevin Durand), and imagery borrowed from Terminator 2 (Max and Atom mimicking each other’s movements in the rural outdoors) and Robocop (Atom examining himself in a mirror), a showdown lurks with Zeus, a killer titan run by a cartoonish Brigitte Nielsen wannabe (Olga Fonda) and a Japanese technician (Karl Yune). While Atom has the same resilient spirit as Charlie, who during the finale makes the ‘bot his literal avatar, what really gives the film its modicum of soul is Jackman’s performance, which may traverse well-trod terrain, as when he goes jogging at dawn in a hooded sweatshirt, or gruffly bickers with boxing gym owner and obvious love interest Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), but exudes a charismatic humanity that cuts through the persistent clichés.
If Jackman and, to a lesser extent, the spunky Goyo provide the film with a passable flesh-and-blood touch, however, it’s Real Steel‘s CG work that ultimately helps sell its fiction. Exhibiting distinctive personalities as well as a genuine sense of weight, power and tangible substantiality, Atom and his various adversaries are believable action figures come to life, albeit ones in service of a tale whose mechanical predictability is epitomized, ultimately, by a finale in which humanity finds professional and emotional triumph by becoming one with the machine.