Boxing movies have been a staple of Hollywood for decades. Some of the earliest celluloid offerings documented pugilistic bouts in films such as Raging Bull, The Fighter, and the iconic Rocky series and helped boxing cement itself in both popular and cinematic culture.
In the film “Real Steel”, Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a down-on-his-luck promoter whose best days are definitely behind him. In the near-future setting of the film, robots have replaced humans in the boxing ring and Charlie is constantly and desperately looking for the next big thing to help him claim a little fame and a lot of fortune.
Following the loss of his fighting robot, Charlie is summoned to Texas after the passing of his ex-girlfriend, the mother of his son. Charlie is eager to sign over the guardianship of his son, Max, to Max’s aunt, but after noticing her wealthy husband, decides to take advantage of the situation. Charlie makes a deal to sign over the guardianship of his son Max, (Dakota Goyo) in exchange for a large sum of money which he plans to use to get back into the robot fighting game. The catch for Charlie is that he must watch Max for the summer so Max’s future parents can take a planned trip to Italy.
Max is quickly thrown into the robot-fighting world when he forces his dad to take him along to a bout. Unfortunately, it’s yet another painful loss for Charlie and their first father-son trip ends with them scouring a junkyard for robot replacement parts. It’s Max who literally stumbles across an old robot and becomes convinced that the discarded machine could become a champion given the right conditions. Despite his misgivings, Charlie agrees to train the robot and in doing so gets to reconnect with his estranged son. Charlie is given a shot at redemption when Max’s robot becomes a fighting success and starts to advance through the rankings.
Naturally with increased success comes increased expectations and risks for Charlie and Max’s robot. There are numerous people looking for them to fail, as there is no way that a washed up boxer with a kid and an outdated machine can take on the machines of the professional circuit. Predictably, but still grippingly so, the outdated robot, named Atom, makes his way from seedy fighting pits to upscale arenas. Eventually the Atom team is given a shot at the big time which, as fans of sports films know, is destined to end with a climactic bout with the larger-than-life champion.
What sets “Real Steel” apart from other CGI laden action films is the human element and emotional connections you make with the characters, and even the blue-eyed junkyard robot itself. Although Atom is a CGI construct of a machine, you find yourself pulling for this unlikely underdog just as much its flesh and blood costars. The action sequences are intense and amazing to look at but never overshadow the underlying storyline of love and redemption.
Jackman gives a believable performance as a seemingly callous individual with no redeeming qualities. (Remember, he essentially sold his son). Evangaline Lily, is solid and likeable in a supporting role as Charlie’s old friend and former love interest. Goyo, fresh off his work playing the younger Thor in this past summer’s blockbuster, does a remarkable job in what is likely his breakout role. He has the spunky innocence of youth with a maturity that I had not seen in any young actor since Haley Joel Osment in the Sixth Sense.
“Real Steel” may not be the most original film, as aside from the robots this is a boxing tale that is been told many times before. I definitely saw lots of elements of the original Rocky but still found the film extremely enjoyable and entertaining as well as one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. It is rumored that a sequel is already in production and I actually hope that this is the case. This is one story I certainly wouldn’t mind going a few extra rounds with.
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