- Rated PG-13
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All photos © Walt Disney
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
he underdog sports film is one of those genres that Hollywood loves to milk. There’s just something about a good crowd-pleaser that audiences can’t get enough of, and boxing movies, in particular, have delivered some of the best ones, with the 1976 classic, “Rocky,” ranking as perhaps the finest underdog story of them all. So it’s not surprising that director Shawn Levy would use the movie as inspiration for his new film, “Real Steel,” because it follows the same basic formula. The difference here, of course, is that it’s robots boxing instead of people – a unique twist that gives the movie an added sense of spectacle to make up for the fact that, no matter how much it tries, “Real Steel” is no “Rocky.” Then again, those are pretty lofty expectations for a film that is still every bit the crowd-pleaser it sets out to be.
Set in the not-too-distant future where the sport of boxing has replaced human fighters with massive, remote-controlled robots, Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a former boxer turned small-time promoter who makes a living traveling from one venue to the next with whatever robot he can scrape together. But when his former girlfriend dies and his estranged son, Max (Dakota Goyo), is left in his custody, Charlie begrudgingly agrees to let the kid join him on the road. After his latest robot is destroyed, the pair heads to the junkyard in search for spare parts, only to uncover an older generation sparring bot named Atom buried in the wreckage. Though Charlie believes the robot is as worthless as it looks, Max convinces him otherwise, and with the help of Charlie’s know-how and training, Atom ends up surprising its owners in the ring, leading to an unlikely title shot against the seemingly invincible World Robot Boxing champion, Zeus.
Loosely based on the Richard Matheson short story, “Steel” (which the author later adapted into a “Twilight Zone” episode of the same name), the film is a bit predictable at times, but that’s a common problem with nearly every sports drama. For instance, when it’s revealed that Atom has a rare shadow function that allows the robot to mimic its controller’s movements, you just know that Charlie is destined to step back into the ring, figuratively speaking, before the end of the film. It’s what Shawn Levy does with the material that really counts, crafting an engaging underdog story that deftly balances drama, comedy and robot-on-robot action. All of the boxing sequences are unique and far more exciting than any "Transformers" movie, but while they're a blast to watch – thanks to a refreshing mix of practical effects and CG that help ground them in reality – the movie isn’t about the robots, but rather the relationship between Charlie and Max.
It’s this father-son dynamic that drives the story and gives the movie its heart, with Hugh Jackman and Dakota Goyo striking up some great onscreen chemistry reminiscent of similar dramas like “Paper Moon” and “The Champ.” Jackman is solid as the charming ne’er-do-well forced to work with the very things that ended his career, but it’s his pint-sized co-star who really surprises by holding his own alongside (and sometimes even outshining) the reliable leading man. The rest of the actors look like they’re lost in some direct-to-video “Speed Racer” sequel, save for Evangeline Lilly, who turns in some nice work as the film’s Adrian. But while the comparisons to “Rocky” are inevitable, “Real Steel” isn’t even in the same weight class. And yet, although the film is only marginally better than the average feel-good sports drama, it hits the right notes almost every time.
Two-Disc Blu-ray Review:
Disney has put together a great collection of bonus material for the Blu-ray release of “Real Steel,” although it’s not without a minor hiccup. While the back cover boasts an audio commentary with director Shawn Levy, there’s no way to select it in the menus. Instead, you have to start up the Second Screen feature – which plays supplemental material on your iPad or laptop while you're watching the film – in order to access the commentary track, but once you do, it’s definitely worth checking out. Levy may not have the best reputation, but he’s an incredibly enthusiastic filmmaker who can talk for hours without losing interest. The two-disc release also includes an in-depth featurette on filming the Metal Valley sequence, a behind-the-scenes look at the practical robots built for the movie, a featurette on Sugar Ray Leonard’s work training Hugh Jackman to become a boxer, extended/deleted scenes, a blooper reel, and a DVD copy of the film.