“Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots” get their day on the big screen in Real Steel, a movie that transcends the one-joke premise and is instead a heartwarming, fist-pumping mechanized fairy tale of a father and son coming together amid some of the baddest technology you’ll ever wish was really available. Not to bad for a few plastic robots from the 60s.
Okay, so Real Steel isn’t based on the old game you played with and trashed back when you were a kid, it’s actually based on the story “Steel” by the amazing and incredible Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, Hell House, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet). But the storyline sure quacks like a toy robot: it’s sometime in the not-too-distant future, a time where boxing has ditched humans and amped up the amazeballs factor by using robots. Big, powerful, amazing robots, that are controlled/worked by human handlers and treated like superstars. Robotics engineers are the new cool kids on the block, and as with all types of fighting there’s the legal big-leagues, and the shady underground scene. Cue Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman, looking scruffy but gorgeous; does the man ever look bad?), a poor schmuck whose every decision seems like the wrong one. After hurting himself in human boxing, he’s a robot boxing promoter, but he’s been reduced to staying one step ahead of the law and his myriad of creditors. When Charlie finds out that he’s the father of 11-year-old Max, his son from a girlfriend he only barely remembers, having to take care of a kid puts a cramp in his style. So he makes a deal with his dead girlfriend’s sister Debra; Charlie will watch Max over the summer so Aunt Debra and Uncle Marvin can go away to Europe, then Deb and Marv will take Max off Charlie’s hands for good. But when Max, a kid who’s already a huge robot boxing fan, gets his first taste of competition, he decides to try his hand at the sport himself, along with a robot he finds in a spare-parts dump. If you think Charlie and Max don’t bond over this, you obviously don’t get out much.
Jackman is in rare form here, and that’s saying something. The man could literally act his way out of a paper bag and onto the Globe Stage if he wanted to, thanks to his ability to handle just about any role, from musical lead to a certain sideburned superhero. He can even make a craptastic movie…well, palatable from time to time. (I’m looking at you, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Kate and Leopold.) Evangeline Lily has a small but important role as Bailey Tallet, Charlie’s engineer and former love interest. She’s not given much to do beyond solder parts and tell Charlie he’s a screwup, but as with Lost, Lily adds an openness and sincerity to her character. The truly breathtaking performance comes from Dakota Goyo as Max, who holds his own with the A-List actors he’s working with. The three leads manage to rise above the Sci-Fi trappings and turn what could have easily been a quick cash-in (*coughTransformerscough*) into a film with real heart underneath all that metal. It’s the answer to every prayer sent out by someone who has a significant other who won’t go to touchy-feely films. It’s two treats in one; a feel-good movie with plenty of ass-kicking action. I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes the date night of the season.
Ahh action. It’s here, and in spades. Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Date Night) knows how to mix his genres without sacrificing one for the other. Film editor Dean Zimmerman keeps the pace quick when it needs to be, but slows things down in just the right places. Legacy Effects handles the robot action, blending special effects with live action so well I couldn’t see an edge or warp anywhere. Though to be honest the movie’s action sequences are so well done viewers won’t be doing much more than staring at the screen, transfixed. I’ve gotta say that when I first heard about this movie I had my doubts. Big, strong, fighting robots-sized doubts. But Real Steel put those doubts to rest. Real Steel is the movie Transformers: Dark of the Moon wishes it could have been. That’s because Real Steel takes the time to deliver a touching father-son story along with it’s whizbang effects. The result is a movie well worth your hard earned rivets.