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Review: Real Steel (2011)

Real Steel (2011)

Directed by: Shawn Levy

Premise: In the near future, the world has become enraptured by a new sport: boxing between large humanoid robots. A down on his luck boxing operator (Hugh Jackman) and his estranged son (Dakota Goyo) try to beat the odds by training an obsolete robot to fight.

What Works: At first glance, Real Steel appears like a knock off of Transformers in that it involves large humanoid robots punching each other. But Real Steel is a much better film than any of the Transformers pictures and it manages to be a very entertaining crowd pleaser. For one thing, the action scenes are well done. Unlike many of the action films made recently, such as The Green Lantern or Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the boxing scenes of Real Steel are competently and excitingly shot. The film has a good sense of pacing and the fight scenes are effectively staged. But what really sets this film apart and makes it so enjoyable is the central relationship between the father and son. Hugh Jackman’s character is an absentee father who owes money all over town and has no parental instincts. By taking the risk of deliberately making its protagonist an unlikable person, Real Steel sets up a considerable obstacle to overcome and as it does that the film earns a lot of human credibility that gives the fights emotional weight and narrative meaning. Dakota Goyo plays the son and the young actor does well; even though his technical skills come out of nowhere, the boy’s relationship with his father is believable and their bonding makes the rest of the film believable.

What Doesn’t: Real Steel is no science fiction masterpiece. Even within the fantasy of the film a lot of it requires considerable leaps in credibility. The film is confused about how the audience should feel about the refurbished robot. The story makes it clear that the robot has no consciousness and it never becomes a genuine character but Real Steel often cuts to reaction shots of the robot’s blank face and the human characters often emote toward it as though the robot were able to respond. The film is also very sentimental and has all the clichés of boxing films and father-son bonding stories.  Viewers who are suckers for either one (or both) of those kinds of stories will find Real Steel all the more satisfying but viewers should also have no illusions about the kind of populist pandering that Real Steel indulges.

Bottom Line: Real Steel is a good popcorn film, the kind of picture to be enjoyed as a weekend matinee with parents and their kids. It isn’t a movie that anyone is going to remember in years to come and Real Steel is awfully sentimental but it does entertain, which is exactly what it is intended to do. 

Episode: #359 (October 16, 2011)