From the billboards you might think thisis another Transformers movie—heaven help us—when in fact, Real Steel is a cross between Rocky and The Champ. It’s formulaic and unashamedly manipulative, but it’s played with sincerity…and it works.
This project has been in development for years, under Steven Spielberg’s watchful eye, and bears only superficial resemblance to the Richard Matheson story that inspired it. (You may remember its first adaptation, as a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone called “Steel,” with Lee Marvin.) The screenplay is creditd to John Gatings, with story credit to Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven.
The time is the near-future. Hugh Jackman plays an irresponsible, washed-up prizefighter who ekes out a living as manager for boxing robots. When his ex-wife dies, he’s forced to spend a summer looking after his 11-year-old son—a boy he’s never really known (played by newcomer Dakota Goyo) who just happens to be a savvy superfan of robot boxers. It’s the kid who has faith in a “junk pile” Jackman is ready to write off. With some t.l.c. and Jackman’s boxing experience, the discarded machine takes them to the Big Time, and helps cement the damaged relationship between father and son.
Under Shawn Levy’s direction, the story never misses a beat, with fully-committed performances by Jackman, Evangeline Lilly (as the woman who’s always believed in him), and fresh-faced young Goyo, who bears a strong resemblance to Ricky Schroder and has the same ability to win you over at emotional moments, even if you’re trying to resist.
Technically, the film is one of those modern marvels in which it’s impossible to tell where reality ends and CGI takes over. (In fact, the key robot characters were actually constructed as animatronic “puppets” standing eight feet tall. It’s only when they walk or box that they’re not real.) But this movie lives or dies with the human element, and if you’re a sucker for a story involving an underdog—and a father’s redemption in the eyes of his son—you’ll willingly surrender to Real Steel. If you’re looking for something gritty or only interested in high-tech combat between machines, you’ll have to look elsewhere.