“Ricky – enough! ENOUGH!”
“I … I cain’t hear you over the sound of yer robot bein’ destroyed!!!”
Remember that board-game with the two punching robots – one red, one blue – that you used to be able to hand-operate in furious, plastic-bashing bouts of juvenile aggression until one or the other’s head popped-up? Well, Night At The Museum director Shawn Levy has taken that very simple ethic of SF-tinged competition, enlarged it considerably and hurled it front ‘n’ centre into a quasi-future landscape of a heartland America in which the sport of robot boxing has become the adrenal fix that was once the province of superstar wrestling. The visual image of two hulked-up pugilistic droids may evoke such playfully sweet nostalgia but the thematic idea actually stems from the short story “Steel” written by Richard Matheson that aired in season five of the classic TV show, The Twilight Zone. We are in an undetermined near future that looks extremely familiar to our own environment, even slightly retro if you consider the mohawk-headed punk-cum-greaseball-grunge style still doing the rounds in some quarters … and robots are designed and built purely with the intention of destroying one another in high-stakes bouts of near-homicidal, hydraulic-galvanised fury.
Entering the ring are a disillusioned ex-fighter called Charlie Kenton, who is losing money hand-over-fist with outdated robots and sheer bloody bad luck, and the son he refused to believe he had … until the boy’s mother had to cheek to die that is, and leave him with unwanted parental responsibilities.
It is a testament to how strong the well-worn concept of the estranged father-son relationship is that the plot of Shawn Levy’s bonding super-session of Real Steel doesn’t end up drowning in a vat of oil-tainted saccharine. This is the sort of material could easily collapse under the weight of its own sentimentality.
Kenton (Hugh Jackman) ducks and weaves through a tale that walks a path whose eventual destination is signposted in Vegas-bright neon from the very start. Living out of a wacky truck that is part retro juggernaut, part futuristic muscle-wagon, his lapsed boxing hero is now a fight promoter begging from Peter to pay-off his debts to Paul. His stock-in-trade is comprised of dilapidated, half-rusted hulks of metal whose gladiatorial days are well past their sell-by. Whatever pieces he can scrape up off the floor of the arena after another defeat are bussed back to his old school gym-cum-machine-shop and salvaged, cannibalised and rebuilt by his trusty mechanic Bailey (the delectable Lilly Evangeline). With the good times either just a distant memory or lurking tantalisingly just around the next corner, he doesn’t recognise at first that the arrival of his son, Max (Dakota Goya), is the golden opportunity he needs to get his life back in order.
Although resentful and suspicious of his estranged father, Max is enamoured with the lifestyle that Charlie leads and wants to experience more of it. He tags along with his dad and witnesses firsthand the over-confidence and poor judgement that Charlie makes, and when a bout in the underground ring of Crash City goes badly wrong and their Samurai robot, Noisy Boy, gets wasted, he stumbles across what could be the answer to their combined prayers when he uncovers the long-forgotten chassis of an old and outdated Gen-2 (“But barely!” asserts a dubious Bailey) sparring robot in a treacherous, rain-sodden scrapheap. Against Charlie’s better judgement, Max drags the decrepit minor-league training-droid back and gets to work on him, wiping the mud off his metal hide, firing-up his spark-plugs and taking him on jogs around the city streets. In lieu of the true bonding that he should be getting from his father, Max and the Gen-2, whom he learns is called Atom, become closely allied and, over the course of some gruelling bouts of mecha-mayhem in rogue underground fights, Charlie sees that the two have a winning connection – aided by the gift of a “shadow” program that enables the robot to mimic the movements of a specific human. As their fame spreads, so does Max’s confidence and, after getting to the exciting arenas of much bigger and more profitable fights, they find themselves faced with an amazing offer from the operators of the reigning robot champion, the mighty Zeus, who want to buy their fight-bot off them. But Max has other ideas. If the arrogant Japanese robo-designer Tak Mashido (Karl Yune) and his glamorous, yet devious partner Farra Lemkova (Olga Fonda) want the Gen-2 so badly, that means that they are afraid of him and his shadow mode. So, in a moment of sheer do-or-die, Max literally calls out the champ to a premier bout that will be televised around the world. It’s a pure Rocky-style shot at the title for the underdog that captures the imagination of the crowds … and the scene is set for a David and Goliath showdown of epic proportions, provided Max and Charlie can keep their heads together.
In fact, if you think about his hi-tech training regime and sheer indestructibility, plus having Brigitte Nielsen’s scheming Bolshevik as his manager, Zeus could easily have been modelled upon Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago!
We all love Hugh Jackman. I doubt that he will ever collect an Academy Award for Best Actor, but he’s an amazingly charismatic force of nature, and that says an awful lot about him. With an easygoing attitude and a frank and earnest smile, he is the perfect loveable rogue, the guy from the wrong-side-of-the-tracks who wins you over the very second you meet him. You see him being interviewed on TV and his unmistakable joi de vivre melts the screen. The fact that he doesn’t take himself seriously and that he is clearly having fun with any role he undertakes is a sure-fire infectious crowd-pleaser. This is the sort of star-power that Mel Gibson once had to spare and something that he exploited so well in his ever-more comedic, caper-filled movies. Yet whereas Gibson could also switch on the intensity and swathe a character in emotional layers, Jackman has yet to convince when it comes to the deeper levels of angst. Here, as the washed-up, jaded, self-centred and mercenary robot-boxing trainer/manager, he is essaying the sort of character that we have all seen a million times before. Sporting background or not, this is the guy who has seen his one true opportunity slip through his fingers and now carries that burden around like a millstone around his neck. The symmetry of the plot sees to it that whilst the Max and Atom relationship is the sort of family ideal that the boy should have had with his father, both Charlie and Atom have a profound connection as well. Both were renowned sparring partners to the real champions. Charlie broke the bounds and actually made a name for himself by winning the heart of the crowd during what should have been a simple warm-up bout, and now Atom will get his shot at fame and glory with the premier bot in the business. For all three it is a test of spirit and willpower, and even if our leading man is just breezing through the role it is hard not to get wrapped-up in his own emotional return to the ring as well as his coming to terms with being a father.
But as much as he fends and moves around the pressures of his son, the spiralling debts and that dreaded losing streak, Jackman drops his guard for Evangeline – and, let’s face it, who wouldn’t? – with a brusque affection that we know would crack asunder the very instant a tear even threatened to gleam in her eye. And for her part, Lilly Evangeline looks adorable, even as a spanner-wielding grease-monkey, but she gets to assume the rather more thankless task of practitioner of common-sense and sage advice. She’s certainly a lot easier on the eye than old Burgess Meredith!
On a more volatile level Jackman is reunited with his Wolverine co-star, Kevin Durand … and once more the two are at loggerheads. The former “Blob”, Durand plays corrupt rodeo-manager Ricky, a guy who happily pitches his bulls against the straining, steel-reinforced hides of robot matadors for a baying crowd of rednecks. Durand always seems to have a sleazy, dangerous attitude about him – look no further than his redneck enforcer opposed to the Rock in Walking Tall – but he is a surprisingly formidable and well-built opponent. The rippling frame he took great delight in revealing in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, in which he played Little John to Russell Crowe’s rather naff Robin, may be concealed beneath brash suits, but he does make a believable enough hard-knock to up against the hardly pathetic Jackman. Thus, he may begin the film as a wise-talking smarm-merchant, strutting about in jeans, Stetson and bootlace-tie and entertaining the crowd, but he is able to bring a much darker, even racist tangent to Ricky, meaning that there is a later scene in which some unexpected and all-too human violence is wrought-about … and with some more subsequently implied, as well.
Thus, there is very definitely the core of something much more dramatic and intimidating at the heart of this story, but Levy purposely opts to keep it clean and plays his rags-to-riches story straight down the middle of the road. This said, there are still a couple of elements that may come as a surprise to some people who had settled very nicely into the seemingly safe groove. And if you watch the earlier robot versus bull skirmish and it feels just a touch “iffy” to see the animal getting a roundhouse punch to the head that literally upends it (this could literally have been a case of the cow that jumped over the Moon!), then have a look at the moment when a steel leg is severed and hurled into the whooping spectators, several hundreds pounds of steel landing just in front of a little girl. Levy is having fun with this environment and sneaking in little snippets of human critique about the mass conscience of this future world. Tellingly, after the shock of this steel leg’s impromptu arrival in her lap, the little girl seeks reassurance from her mother and then cheers right alongside everyone else. Plus, poor Max gets shoved about a bit at one stage … and I think it is admirable that Levy sprinkles a slightly left-field hard edge into the proceedings.
Of all the films that have been influenced by the barnstorming British SF comic, 2000 AD, what with Judge Dredd still trying to make a properly faithful cinematic breakthrough, Richard Stanley’s cyberpunk horror of Hardware, John Milius’ reds-in-the-beds occupation drama Red Dawn taking flight from the gritty page-turning serial about the resistance struggle against the England-enslaving Volgs in Invasion and even Jurassic Park bowing to the savage dino action of the awesome Flesh, Levy’s sporting opus is very possibly the most pertinent. The screenplay from John Gatkins, Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven (with a conscious nod to Richard Matheson) could easily have been culled from the pages of the classic publication. There is more of a connection to the fabled ABC Warriors with these metal-fisted brawlers than there is to those bludgeoning Transformers or any other robot fantasy creations you could care to mention. These striking robots are an indulgence of technology rather than a scientific evolution of it. The script doesn’t make a single reference to how such mechanoid skills could play a part in improving society or developing science and industry. They fight and that’s that. Thus, this is not a world that is as complexly thought-out as that in Blade Runner or as culturally heavy-handed as that seen in I, Robot or A.I. Clearly with robots as incredible as these guys readily sourced, society would be more dynamic and metal-men would surely be incorporated for much more than merely getting mashed-up for a cheering crowd. But the writing trio don’t fall into the temptation of bogging the story down with the bigger picture of how such tech could have been employed elsewhere, and we are spared the usually wacky politics that tends to go hand-in-hand with sort of high-concept drama. In many ways it would probably be more appropriate to qualify this as taking place in an alternate universe, rather than in the future. Of course, this refusal to acknowledge the wider sphere simplifies the story … but it is also what makes it feel so clean and fresh.
Naturally, this sort of fable is built upon stereotypes, and it would not have been a surprise to have ended-up hating the kid for being savvy, street-smart and devoid of cynicism, but Goya enables Max to be a ferociously likeable little chap. On the downside, he looks a bit like the most annoying brat in the universe, Jake Lloyd’s young Annakin Skywalker from The Phantom Menace, but an engrossing optimism coupled with the sort of cocksure, adult-demeaning attitude that only a kid dreamt-up by a Hollywood scribe can exhibit, means that he does the impossible and makes the diminutive Max a welcome and personable example of what has, indeed, become a tried-and-trusted cinematic ode to a personified conscience and gutsy determination.
The little shadow-mode dance-off that Max and his robot perform before each bout could have been a sad eye-roller, yet it becomes a signature that we actually long to see more of. When the fans and the crowd take this antic onboard, it feels genuine instead of cloying and contrived. When Max gazes at a father finally able to embrace his past and to use his experience and expertise to further their combined ambition, it should be another moment to cringe through … but Levy, Goya and Jackman seem to understand and cajole the story’s emotional core without overselling it – which is not an easy thing to do given the run-of-the-mill dynamics of the plot.
So the humans acquit themselves well. But what about the robots, then?
The visual FX are a wonder of kinetic steel-on-steel aggression, with lots of super-speed, chassis-crunching pulverising with the robots displaying a level of agility that is quite awe-inspiring. The production used real boxers in mo-cap suits to map out the moves and this tactic pays dividends without the robots seeming ridiculously too energetic for their cumbersome physiques, and the various fights we see are brilliantly staged and exciting to watch. But what lends the movie its true potency is the use of real, full-size animatronic robots that genuinely occupy a lot of screentime and move about the frame with fabulously puppeteered life. It makes all the difference to have actuallt tangible “characters” to act against and Levy deserves some credit for not going down the pure CG route. Although these guys aren’t war-machines, they all have a unique size and presence that demands respect, and the various designs enable each to be granted its own personality. We have CharIie’s steer-battling Ambush, who looks like a deliberate reference to an AVC Warrior, and there is one with a neon-red Mohican, a cowboy with a metal Stetson and spinning spurs, a hillbilly with an underbite and a sledgehammer for a fist, another with two heads and, of course, the bone-shuddering colossus of Zeus, himself. All are brilliantly individual. In a nice little nod to that kids’ game, Max even finds the head of a robot in the junkyard that is modelled upon the bonce of one of those fist-swinging plastic bots.
And there has been a lot of time and effort used to invest Atom with a winning personality. And yet the potentially trite scenes of him and Max learning to dance together actually work very well. Schmaltz aside, Atom does become a humanised character in the way that people fall in love with a car, say.
The ever-busy Danny Elman supplies the score and it is his most atypical to date. Nowhere to be heard are any of his quirky melodies, and even his trademark percussion wattage has been largely swapped in favour of a more heart-warming, country-laced pastoral that helps to define the road-trip, State-line crossing meandering of the plot. The opening ballad, Why We’re Here, with vocals by Poe, is a terrific encapsulation of Charlie’s plight and it perfectly reflects the more rustic tone of the film and the characters. The overall score is forgettable, but it works very well in the service of the story. It helps you to feel the crushing sense of failure and to punch the air with pride and victory, but you are hardly likely to come away from the movie humming any of it like you would with Bill Conti’s Rocky’ fanfare or Survivor’s immortal The Eye of The Tiger.
With real-life boxing getting some flak at the moment for controversies taking place inside and outside the ring, it is great to see combatants who are actually playing by the rules and, bizarrely enough, not having any personal issues with one another, whatever the outcome of a points decision might be.
So, in spite of all the clichés and the inherent corn, Real Steel is the real deal. It is Rocky meets The Champ on aRain Man-styleodysseythrough a cyberpunk multiverse that could have leapt straight out of the pages of 2000 AD. Hugh Jackman hardly stretches himself to play a once proud man who sees the error of his selfish ways and finds the heart that we all knew was beating strong and true inside of him all the time. Young Dakota Goya does the rare deed of making a child character both sympathetic and charismatic. Durand adds an edge and Evangeline Lilly just makes you want to get all mucky in the machine-shop. The visuals are breathtaking, with the fights dynamic and exciting, but Levy doesn’t allow them to overcrowd a story that is happy to mingle emotion with spectacle to a mutually satisfying conclusion.
Real Steel is terrifically entertaining and comes well recommended for metal-heads everywhere.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.