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There is the clichéd blockbuster and then there is the one that tries to be everything it is not. Surprisingly, “Real Steel” falls somewhere in the middle, as a film that exists in the future and yet focuses on an age-old theme of fathers and sons, a relationship in films that is sadly oft forgotten. “Real Steel” is a unabashed redemption story with hints of emotional authenticity within the confines of a well-oiled blockbuster machine.
The film is the brainchild of director Shawn Levy, best known for his work in the comedy realm with “Night at the Museum” and “Date Night.” This film marks a departure for him, but treads upon territory with which Levy has an obvious fascination — fathers struggling to connect with their sons. Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a washed-up boxer who barely makes a living traveling around as a robot fighter. It’s 2020, and the fighting scene has significantly changed. Charlie isn’t bad at his job, as he controls his old beat up robot with precision in a fight with a bull at a country fair in the films opening moments. His problem is more personality, as he has allowed himself to become a second-rate untrustworthy businessman.
When Charlie’s estranged son, Max (Dakota Goyo), is suddenly thrust back into his life, Charlie’s priorities are quickly dictated by having to focus on the needs of his son. He tries to ignore him at first, but Max is the type of kid who just won’t take no for an answer. All Max wants is a chance to be a part of his father’s world, and Goyo plays the character with a perfect blend of strong-headedness and a genuine need for a father’s influence. Charlie’s business partner/friend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly) takes notice of Max’s deep appreciation of the robot boxing world and convinces Charlie to give Max the time of day.
Charlie gives Max a chance, and before they know it, the two are deep within the robot fighting world together as a team. When things don’t turn out too well for Charlie’s latest investment in a bot called Noisy Boy, the two go searching for parts to construct another. In a near accident, Max uncovers an old sparring bot called Atom. He spends the night in the rain digging him out from the mud while his father once again abandons him to return to the safety of their truck. They bring the robot home and soon discover that Atom has much more to offer than just a sparring machine. His “shadow function” allows him to learn and mimic both Max and Charlie as they train and walk with him.
After a couple bouts fighting in the robot underworld, which actually lends a good amount of character to the overall clean, safe story, Charlie realizes that Atom is destined for much greater things. He isn’t big, he isn’t strong, but he has agility and the ability to take elongated punishment before returning the same to the larger robots. Atom begins a rise to the top on the professional robot fighting scene, and it is only a matter of time before he is facing the greatest bot, appropriately named Zeus.
“Real Steal” is the type of film that will surprise you, regardless of what expectations you bring to the theater with you. There is something about the title of the movie itself that cheapens the experience, and the trailers released for the film did nothing to help. Not less than a minute into the film, as Alexi Murdoch’s “All My Days” plays to wide cinematic shots of the countryside bathed in brilliant shades of light. There are moments throughout the film just like it, and it seems to prove that director Shawn Levy wasn’t afraid to focus on substance more than the action. The fights themselves are nothing short of amazing, there is a freshness to the action, and the bots are authentic in their element, hardly ever dipping below the line into shabby CGI-enhanced shots.
There’s also that quiet undertone of father/son relationship and reconciliation that works beautifully in the film. Atom is more than a robot, he is a metaphor that perfectly embodies both Max in his underdog ways and Charlie in his beaten-down life. Hugh Jackman perfectly captures a man who is a coward half the time, but also one who has the capacity for redemption. Dakota Goyo as Max exudes a confidence beyond his years, but also a sensitivity to emotion that would be missed by many child actors. Evangeline Lilly is possibly the weakest of the trio, but still adds the female touch that the adrenaline pumping film desperately needs.
Some may call “Real Steel” sappy or overtly dramatic at times, but for a blockbuster so utterly driven by visual and technical perfection, it deserves credit for the moments where it sidesteps cliché and digs deep for substance rather than spectacle. I noticed myself smiling more often than not, and not because of comedy, but due to genuine joy. Sometimes, that’s all a movie needs to hit the sweet spot. “Real Steel” did exactly what it needed to for me, plus a little more.