People love fighting robots. That's a fact. How do you think Transformers can go ahead and make a billion dollars? It's definitely nothing to do with the film's quality, that's for sure. Real Steel is a film that, if you've seen the Transformers films, you'll be quick to dismiss as a rip-off of that franchise. Well, as the saying goes, never judge a book by its cover, because Real Steel is a pleasant, if unspectacular surprise that, I'm quite ashamed to say, I enjoyed quite a lot. I mean come on, boxing robots bringing a father and son together? It's basically Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots: The Movie. Call it what you will, there's no denying Real Steel's entertainment value, and it's undoubtedly one of the more fun films you'll see this year.
You'll predict what happens from the opening frame, but I suppose that's just the trap that encapsulates every sports film (this is ultimately a sports film, just with added boxing robots). Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a former boxer who makes a living out of putting giant fighting robots into the boxing ring and earning cash for it. After his ex-girlfriend dies, he is left with his estranged son Max, as well as becoming flat broke. Stubbornly, Charlie teams up with Max and his new found robot Atom, in order to get his life back on track by training Atom to fight, as well strengthening his relationship with his son in the process. So yeah, the plot is as saccharine as molasses, but it works for the most part, and who's complaining about having a heart in a film about fighting robots. It's more than Michael Bay could even comprehend in his lifetime.
The performances are quite typical of this type of film, with there really being nothing remarkable about them. Young Goyo tries hard, but he tries too hard, to the point that he becomes a real distraction from the rest of the film. Thankfully, he makes decent foil with Jackman, who is really good in this. Despite his character being a stubborn asshole, his charismatic performance makes you root for him in the end. You can see that, along with every role he's done, he put a hell of a lot of effort into this, and in the end it really pays off.
There's no way that you can talk about Real Steel without comparing it to Transformers. Let's face it, this was probably never going to reach the spectacle of those films. But in all honesty, it doesn't need to. The boxing scenes are so well executed and exhilarating, that you immediately begin to forget about there being anything close to a Transformer. Director Shawn Levy, who's done everything from The Pink Panther (no wait! Come back!) to Night at the Museum to Date Night, clearly knows what he's doing here, and it's impressive that you can actually tell which robot is fighting which robot, something the Transformers films have always struggled with. The action scenes also never lose the audience. By the final act, you'll be on the edge of your seat. The effects here are also quite terrific, using a combination of animatronic robots and mo-cap. It really shows what you can do with relatively smaller budgets ($110 million's small when you compare it to the $250 million used with Transformers) when you put it to good use.
So the effects and action scenes are all fine and dandy. But the thing that ultimately leads Real Steel down is (excuse me) a rusty screenplay. With plenty of cliches and risible dialogue ("Did you just spit robot juice in Midas' face" is a doozy) to feed Nicholas Sparks for life, the film's fun factor is unfortunately diluted down. It fizzles when it should ignite. Levy also has a hard time finding the perfect balance between the smashing robots and the father and son relationship. It's a commendable mix to have, and would be welcomed, if it were done smoothly enough. Here, unfortunately, it isn't, with both extremes making the film quite disjointed. The father and son bits work for a bit, but became quite tedious after a while. It needed to be balanced out more with the action. And many of the subplots, including the one with Charlie and Bailey, are completely unnecessary. I also found a problem in the morality of the story. Although it appeared to have a lot to say, in relation to the father and son relationship, it never fully showed it and developed it clearly enough, making the film appear quite fickle at times.
You won't find a great film in Real Steel. What do you expect from a film about fighting robots? What you will find, though, is that you'll have a damn good time watching it and, for many, there will be tears flowing. Despite an uneven middle section, Real Steel comes back in the third act with not quite a knockout punch, but more of a right hook to the head. Just try not to hold yourself back from cheering. This is a real crowd-pleaser; audiences will love this film. It's also a massive guilty pleasure, which, for me anyway, made me enjoy the film even more. If they just tighten up the sentimentality of it all and made it grittier and edgier, then Real Steel could turn in to a real franchise. I'd be welcoming it with open arms.