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Real Steel (12A)

Rachel Winterbottom gets to grip with futuristic tumbling

Published on October 19th 2011.

Real Steel (12A)

THE year is 2020. Humans have developed the technology to create vast battle robots, capable of pummelling us puny meatbags into so much spam. That’s right. Finally, the world has the answer to the all-important question: who would win a fight between a robot and a bull? 

However, this is ultimately light-hearted entertainment, and in that way it delivers. 

If you’re down-on-your luck ex-boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), there is only one cash cow in the ring and it isn’t made of metal. Robot boxing has become a worldwide phenomenon and stubborn has-been Charlie has racked up debts trying to make money from the technology that made him obsolete. On the run from his latest failed bovine Vs ‘bot bet, Charlie lands temporary custody of his 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), following the death of the boy’s mother.

Real Steel 2

Having successfully sold Max to his aunt and uncle, the estranged father only has to take care of his son for the summer until the couple return from holidaying. Still owing money to disappointed love interest Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), gym owner, robot mechanic and daughter of his heyday trainer, Charlie pushes his luck in the ring with another ‘bot. To his annoyance, match enthusiast Max joins him and rightfully warns him it’s another losing bet.

Following defeat, the pair go on a salvaging mission for ‘bot parts and Max finds Atom, an old sparring robot that can shadow movement. With Charlie coaching Atom in human-style fighting, and Max teaching him to do the robot dance, the father-son team tour underground boxing matches, hoping to raise enough money to pay off Charlie’s debts.

Science fiction actioner Real Steel has been adapted from short story Steel (1956) by Richard Matheson. The fact that the film is purportedly not based on the Rock ‘em Sock ‘em robot boxing game says much about how seriously the audience is expected to take this film about boxing robots.

Shawn Levy, director of emotional hard hitters Date Night (2010) and Night at the Museum 2 (2009) has set himself a difficult task. His UK audience has to get over the notion that Craig Charles was right: Robot Wars is cool. They also have to believe that humans would use powerful war machines as light entertainment.

Levy’s other challenge is making his audience connect emotionally to a film that puts robot avatars at risk instead of his characters. When a toothy Texan is what passes for the film’s villain, it’s the father-son relationship that’s really at stake in Real Steel. However, luckily for Levy, his blend of animatronics, motion capture and CGI has exquisitely rendered his robots believable, and his human cast take care of the rest.  

Jackman is on form with another Wolverine-esque gruff character who can somehow balance his masculinity with a heart of gold. He clearly enjoys playing the father so inept he almost loses his son off a cliff, but the audience will never believe that Charlie isn’t salvageable. Jackman’s character is initially frustratingly flawed and his self-sabotaging ways resolve themselves too quickly to be satisfying. As such, the ending doesn’t quite pack the emotional punch it obviously intends to deliver.

 Evangaline Lilly (last seen in Lost) ably fulfils her role as the faithful Bailey, the only one who sees Charlie as redeemable. Although after the audience is assured of this, she is relegated to ‘familiar face in crowd’ and the love interest subplot is sidelined in favour of gratuitous father­­-son bonding. 

With Steven Spielberg involved as executive producer (warming up for the tantalisingly named Robopocalypse in 2013), a precocious pre-teen comes as standard. Dakota Goyo (a name that currently guarantees success in the child actor market) is phenomenal as Jackman’s co-star. Fresh from a bit part in Thor (2011), it’s Goyo’s infectious enthusiasm for the fight that delivers the essential ring-side tension. As Max attempts to bond with the robot instead of his emotionally remote father, Goyo also provides the much-needed human connection to every battle. 

There are holes. Max is an unexplained genius when it comes to fixing robots, although luckily for Charlie that makes bonding with his son easier. There is little mention of Max’s recently deceased mother and the boy’s belief that Atom is sentient doesn’t hamper his desire to put him in the ring.

However, this is ultimately light-hearted entertainment, and in that way it delivers. Goyo is impressive enough to retain the audience’s interest despite the predictable plot and schmaltzy message.

Rating: 6/10

Real Steel is presently showing in cinemas across the land.


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