Remember Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, that game where two people fought plastic robots in a ring? Remember how if you landed a punch that was just right, the robot’s head would pop up? If you do, you’ve experienced Real Steel, albeit in a lesser form. Granted, the movie is actually based on a short story by Richard Matheson that precedes the primitive game, but for all intents and purposes, this is that game in movie form and they’re both about equal in emotional depth.
Set at some point in the future, Real Steel exists in a time when human boxing has become obsolete. The public’s need for more carnage couldn’t be satisfied by pitting two flesh and blood people against each other anymore, so the sport evolved to robots. Charlie (Hugh Jackman), a past fighter, suffered from the switch and now works as a small-time promoter with low-budget robots. Due to his stubbornness, all of his robots are eventually destroyed, which means he can’t earn the money to pay back those he owes. One day, he learns that an old girlfriend died and his son, Max (Dakota Goyo), is now his responsibility. Uninterested in the kid, he sells her to his aunt and uncle for $100,000, but first he must keep him for a couple months while they travel out of country. During that time, the two find a robot named Atom who proves more resourceful than expected and, through their mutual interest in robot fighting, they slowly begin to bond.
Real Steel thinks it’s giving viewers something different, but this is nothing more than your typical underdog story. It just replaces humans with robots. It follows the exact same narrative path of countless other movies, to the point where you can accurately predict how each scene will play out. Tossed into the mix is a melodramatic tale about a father who comes to appreciate his son, complete with a variation on the tired father-realizes-what’s-important-and-shows-up-at-dance-recital ending. All in all, the film tries to tell three or four different stories, but all are derivative.
Derivativeness can be okay with strong characters, but few are found here. For starters, Charlie is an unlikable loser. He’s selfish and arrogant and he abandoned his son many years ago. When he has the chance to reconnect with him, he doesn’t want to. His greed causes him to blackmail his uncle into paying him for the kid. He neglects and yells at Max and threatens to make him sleep outside. He doesn’t care at all about the well-being of his kid. When he saves him from falling off a cliff at one point in the movie, you get the distinct impression he’s more worried about losing his promised money than Max losing his life. And that moment where he begins to find appreciation for his son? The moment he starts making him money. Shallow doesn’t begin to describe Charlie and his emotional transformation isn’t developed enough to convince us otherwise.
Seemingly to make up for the lack of interesting human characters, there are some lame attempts at giving Atom a personality, hinting that he may be more than just a machine, like in one scene where he stares at himself in the mirror, but these emotionless mechanisms prove to be less interesting than the ones in Transformers, which I thought was impossible. Slight turns of the head are supposed to have some profound meaning, but come off as laughable amidst characters like Tak Mashido (Karl Yune), who, with his outrageous spiky hair, looks like he stumbled in from the set of a live action Dragonball Z production.
As if watching two men beat each other senseless couldn’t get any less interesting, this movie goes ahead and takes the humanity out of it. It’s hard to care about the outcome of the fights because, in the end, these are faceless robots. Unlike more traditional underdog stories, the human characters aren’t training to achieve success. They aren’t putting their bodies on the line and fighting through the pain. They’re merely tinkering with some wires and then playing a live action video game. The fights are still undeniably fun to watch, but once the outcome of the championship presents itself, you’ll realize you wouldn’t have cared had it gone the other way instead.
Real Steel receives 2/5