The sucker-punches of Real Steel

In the near future of Real Steel, human boxing has lost its appeal, and in its place has risen an industry of new warriors, those who build, train, and control humanoid robot boxers for the ring.

Charlie Kenton, played well by Hugh Jackman, is deep in the business, having fallen into it from the end of the days of human boxing, during which he was a spectacular boxer with a fair record. The film opens as Charlie is in a losing streak, and down on his luck in more ways than one. When his estranged son is thrust upon him by the death of an old girlfriend, he and the boy embark on a heroic and touching adventure, which leads them to the very top of the sport they find they share a love for.

First off, Evangeline Lilly is terrific in the romantic lead. This was a big break for her, making the move from television – she spent six years dazzling us all on LOST – to the silver screen.

I was concerned that she wouldn’t pull it off, but her performance does not disappoint. Her character is the tomboyish daughter of Charlie’s late boxing coach.

The performance of Dakota Goya, as Charlie’s son, is another bright point, but I found it difficult to really get into the character. It’s not the actor’s fault, however; it’s the writing.

As often happens with films like this, the writers give the boy, who is supposed to be eleven years old, the attitude and speech patterns of someone several years older.

The whole film works better if you pretend that the character is fifteen or sixteen instead of eleven. The issue is mostly easy to push past, however, and doesn’t detract from the overall emotional effect of the film.

The robot fight scenes look great, and are somehow more compelling that they would be if the fighters were people. It’s unrealistic, but interesting that there is an element of real boxing involved, where Charlie is a good controller because he has such a deep understanding of real boxing, while the other controllers only see fighting machines. 

I was expecting a Pinocchio story but got entirely different themes altogether. Toward the climax, Charlie becomes a strong John Henry figure, the lone man, fighting against the takeover of the machines. The symbolism is only deepened that Charlie is from Detroit (complete with a bit of Eminem on the soundtrack, of course), while the robot fights all seem to take place in New York, L.A., and Atlantic City. The film makes no attempt to make it seem like the fighting robots are ‘real’ in any way. To all of the characters, they are always just robots.

The redemption story at the core of the film is surprisingly touching. The father son relationship that develops around their love of, and desire to compete in, the World Robot Boxing league – with the father loving the boxing, and the son loving the robots – is core to the emotion of the film, and not left by the wayside.

Each scene feels clearly like a part of a new, redeemed relationship, which must culminate in a powerful fight against the greatest odds, and despite being fairly predictable in its outcome, each step along the way is still exciting. You find yourself cheering for the little robot at every step, and even holding your breath at times.

Overall, Real Steel is a fun film with clever special effects, which – while it may not win any Oscars – makes a good date movie. The film is in theaters this weekend.