Reviewed by James Owen
If you’re going to make a sci-fi flick about fightin’ robots, then have the decency to make a crazily stupid film if you aren’t going to swing for allegory or social relevance. That is, unless you are hack extraordinaire Shawn Levy, and Richard Matheson’s short story easily translates into a vanilla paste-bland October filler movie. “Real Steel” and takes what could be an interesting story (really!) and makes it into series of sports movie cliches that lack any genuine…wait for it…punch.
It’s 2020 and technology has evolved to where robots have replaced humans in the sport of boxing. Did the sport have to do that for health or liability concerns? We never find out. Does our society also use this technology to wage wars or supplement law enforcement—I mean, we’re sending Predator drones into sovereign airspace to shoot at whomever’s on our terror list! Unfortunately, the director of the Night at the Museum films isn’t much interested in anything other than…hey…fightin’ robots!
Former boxer Charlie Denton (Hugh Jackman) is supposed to be this unscrupulous, down-and-out robot shill that takes heaps of scrap to state fairs to fight bulls. (Yes, you heard me. Even this is treated with earnestness.) However, that’s hard to convey to an audience when you look like Hugh Jackman with a close-shaved head.
But we’ve got a family sub-plot brewing. Through ridiculous legal wrangling, Charlie gets stuck with his son Max (Dakota Goya), whom he now takes him on the robot-battling circuit. Undeterred, we watch Charlie buy other junky robots and watch them get eviscerated comically. His robots get a particular thrashing from super-robot Zeus (yes, Zeus). Then, Max finds Atom, who somehow saves young Max’s life. Atom is some kind of practice robot who can take hits but not really dole any out.
Wow…he sounds like Charlie: life is always pummeling and he can’t seem to do anything about it. While Dad is not sold on Atom, Max really does believe in him. Or it. And, even though he’s never had much of a relationship with dear old pop, the film strives to convince us this confidence will help Max believe in Charlie as well. They work on Atom, the audience is treated to training montages, and we watch as the story crescendos towards Atom taking on Zeus (yes, Zeus) in the climatic battle.
Think about, for a moment, where the screenwriters are trying to take this movie. It could be the ultimate conflict between man-made technology. You have this minuscule unit (with a namesake acknowledging its place in science) battling “the father of the gods.” The simple vs. the complex. The accessible vs. the powerful. The great thing about science fiction is its ability to play out contemporaneous concerns to extreme boundaries in order to challenge the audience. While the notion of fighting robots is kind of silly, there’s real potential. What would happen if artificial intelligence could challenge each other? Would it be better for humanity? Worse?
But Shawn Levy, whether he cares anything about sci-fi or not, knows what makes a studio executive happy. He knows how to craft a film into a good marketing campaign. Or is that the other way around? Either way, he would rather not challenge when he can placate. This is a film about a father redeeming his image in the eyes of his son. This is about an underdog training for the Big Fight. Both are tried and true formulas. Even with all the potential for provocative material, “Real Steel” fails because Charlie isn’t the one going into the ring. The robot is. So all the tension about whether Charlie will be redeemed as a father or an ex-boxer is pointless because HE’S NOT FIGHTING ANYONE! There’s a disconnect between his character’s arc and the outcome of the story because they are parallel, not convergent. Perhaps better filmmakers could cross these two paths. What we know is the guy who made “Date Night” sure can’t.
Compare this to the episode of The Twilight Zone that adapted the Matheson story. Lee Marvin plays the lead, which centers more on how man interacts with machine and how society has become sold on machine’s superiority. It’s a little dated, but you can see the potential. The film could have evoked some ethical questions, like a low-rent “A.I.” Or it could have just been crazy fun. I hoped for misplaced ambition or something that would show Jackman thought this was as goofy as the rest of us. Nope, just a dull film geared for families with nothing memorable left for the kids or their parents. It’s about as offensive as what Warner Brothers did to the end of “I am Legend.”
Could they not have even called it “Reel Steel”? The extra “e” makes it fun in a stupid way. But no, the dude who gave us “Cheaper by the Dozen” couldn’t even have done us that favor.