Real Steel, directed by Shawn Levy, is one of the very few movies I've seen in recent years where the audience I was in actually broke into applause in various scenes. A masterfully done tale of underdogs - a boy and his dad and a discarded robot - going against the odds, it really does get you pumped up to that level. I got a bigger kick out of this movie than I have from any other this year. It really is that much fun to watch.
The germ idea for Real Steel comes from a 1956 short story by Richard Matheson that was made into a classic Twilight Zone episode, and the look is right out of the Transformers franchise, but the heart - and there's a lot of it in this film - comes in equal measure from two films one would ordinarily have never linked together: John Avildsen's boxing classic Rocky (1976) and Peter Bogdanovich's Depression-era con-man & kid road trip classic Paper Moon (1973).
The plot is set in the not so distant future of 2020, where human boxing has been completely displaced by robot boxing. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), a former boxer who now gets by "managing" a robot boxer named Ambush, is about as down on his luck as it gets. Deep in debt and barely able to keep Ambush functional, Charlie is reduced to working the fringes of the boxing circuit and even exhibiting Ambush in county fairs where he puts the robot up against things like wild bulls. Which turns out to be a really bad idea when Ambush ends up getting smashed to pieces by a bull that weighs almost three times what he had agreed to, leaving Charlie fleeing in his van afterwards to avoid the exhibition promoter (Kevin Durand) to whom he now owes twenty thousand dollars. In this opening scene, we learn two things that tell us why Charlie is in the straits he's in: (1) he frequently makes really bad decisions, especially when he's desperate, and (2) he lets himself get distracted instead of keeping his mind on what he's doing - a bad thing to have happen when your robot is fighting a two-and-a-half ton bull.
Shortly after this disaster, while wondering how he's going to be able to afford another robot, Charlie unexpectedly finds out that an old ex-girlfriend of his has died, leaving behind an eleven-year-old boy named Max (Dakota Goyo), a son Charlie hasn't seen since he was an infant. Thinking that it's just a matter of signing over custody to the boy's aunt Debra (Hope Davis) and her new husband Marvin (James Rebhorn), Charlie shows up at the courthouse, only to quickly realize that Marvin is rich and that the opportunity he's been needing has landed right in his lap. Abruptly seeming to change his mind about signing the boy over, Charlie privately talks Marvin into an agreement where he'll give up custody rights to the boy, but only for $100K. Not wild about adopting Max to begin with, Marvin grudgingly agrees, but only on the condition that Charlie keep the boy for the next three months so that the kid doesn't interfere with his plans for their summer vacation in Europe. Charlie, not wild about being saddled with a kid, reluctantly agrees, getting half the money up front, the other half to be handed over when he delivers the kid at the end of the summer. The deal done, Marvin departs with Debra, leaving Charlie face-to-face with Max for the first time. And clearly, neither of them are thrilled by this arrangement. Max is even less thrilled when he finds out that he's been "sold" to his aunt and uncle and angrily demands that Charlie give him half the money. Which Charlie can't because he's already spent most of it buying a replacement robot named Noisy Boy. Seem familiar? It's right out of Paper Moon, as are some other key moments in the film.)
Charlie takes Max to an old boxing gym that now serves largely as a repair shop for robot boxers, run by his friend Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lily). The two of them have history together as Bailey's father was Max's trainer back in the days when Max was a boxer and the boxing gym was still a boxing gym. Bailey knows Max better than he knows himself, and she's the first one to recognize just how much Max and Charlie are alike. But the similarities quickly come out when Noisy Boy is delivered and Max stares at the robot with fanboy adoration, rattling off a string of fight statistics that even Charlie wasn't aware of. He also turns out to know the Japanese commands needed to operate Noisy Boy from all of the video games he's played.
Things finally seem to be looking up and Charlie gets an old fight promoting friend Finn (Anthony Mackie) to get Noisy Boy on the evening's fight card at the local arena. But once again, Charlie's hopes are dashed by bad decisions and not keeping his mind on what he's doing. Faced with once again having to try to come up with a robot but with no money to pay for one, Charlie takes Max along as he night-raids a junkyard looking for robot parts. As they wander through the place in the dark and the rain, Max falls off the edge of a pit and is barely saved when he's snagged on the exposed arm of a buried junked robot. Excited over having found an entire robot, Max insists on digging him out, which Charlie wants no part of. Hours later, when the sun is finally rising, we see a worn-out and thoroughly mud-bedraggled Max hauling the recovered robot back to the van where Charlie is waiting. Max just glares at his father for a moment, then starts hitting and kicking at him in a blind, exhausted and exasperated fury. The scene is absolutely priceless.
Back at the gym, Max sets about cleaning up the salvaged robot, an older-gen sparring `bot built to take massive punishment but not to deal it out. He discovers that the `bot is named Atom, and that Atom has a shadow mode where he copies the movements of whoever is operating him. Max, convinced that Atom can take on actual boxer robots and win, pesters Charlie until Charlie finally arranges for Atom to get a match in an unsanctioned off-the-grid makeshift outdoor arena. In spite of himself, Charlie gets caught up in Max's dogged determination and enthusiasm and the two begin working together. From there on, the film shifts into Rocky mode and its Charlie and Max and their underdog robot Atom going up against the odds.
The supporting cast is superb. Evangeline Lilly's Bailey is quite convincing as a woman who knows Charlie well enough to care about him but to be wary of him at the same time. The same holds true for Anthony Mackie's Finn, who lets Charlie talk him into match-ups that he knows are a bad bet but he can't prevent from happening. Kevin Durand's Ricky is affably ruthless as a "good ol' boy" promoter who gets Charlie in hock and then takes it out of his hide later. John Gatins (who wrote the screenplay) brings over-the-top trash-talk bravado to his pierced and mohawked Kingpin, the manager of the robot Atom is first put up against. And Karl Yune and Olga Fonda are pitch perfect as Tak Mashido and Farra Lemkova, the arrogant brains and ice-cold business savvy behind the reigning World Robot Boxing League champion, Zeus, the ultramodern engine of destruction that Max, Charlie and Atom must ultimately face.
And the robots themselves are impressive. Not mere CGI fabrications, twenty-six animatronic robots were created for the movie. A combination of CGI and the simul-cam motion capture technology developed for Avatar was used for the scenes where you see the robots moving independently or fighting in the ring. Each boxing robot has a distinctive look and feel tailored to suggest varying levels of sophistication and menace. Everything about Atom, on the other hand, symbolizes the underdog nature of Charlie and Max. Older generation, less sophisticated, more scarred and far less shiny, and a little smaller than most of the robots he's put up against, Atom also has soft blue-oval eyes that subtly suggest empathic connection. There's no sentience behind them, no artificial intelligence, but Atom nonetheless "sees" Max and Charlie, and in him they see themselves.
But the heavy lifting rests on the chemistry between Hugh Jackman's Charlie and Dakota Goyo's Max. Hugh Jackman's Charlie is spot on, a subtle portrayal of a man always reaching for the brass ring - and always tripping himself up before he can grab it. Jackman brings this out beautifully - you can see the desperate agony on his face each time when Charlie realizes the brass ring is slipping away from him yet again. But something nonetheless keeps Charlie going on, something inside him just won't let him quit, and Jackman brings out that side of him as well. Dakota Goyo's Max is a younger - and very possibly smarter - Charlie that life hasn't beaten down yet. He is that voice inside Charlie that won't let him give up. And in Max, Charlie finds himself all over again.
Highly, highly recommended.