Oct 8 2011 4:31pm

Deactivate Cynicism Mode Before Entering: Real Steel

To its credit, Real Steel is completely upfront about the kind of movie it is. It’s a movie about Hugh Jackman being muscular, and robots who punch each other. There’s more to it than that, but the more-to-it that there is is for the most part equally simple, easy to summarize, and designed to please crowds. There’s a precocious kid, a cute girl, a disapproving relative, a racist good old boy, Anthony Mackie seriously slumming it, and a pair of sinister foreigners with lots of money. The story goes pretty much where you expect it to—there are a couple wrinkles—and aside from an odd bit of mildly salty language it’s something one can have very few qualms about bringing kids to.

But what, you might ask, of its relevance to SF? It’s set in a near-future where cars, clothes, and pop music are all basically the same but phones are a little fancier and there have been radical advances in robotics. The evenness, or lack thereof, of the distribution of this future is actually quite nicely and plausibly handled, and no one dwells on it at all, which no one really would, unless this movie was about tech industry people. But it’s not. It’s about boxing.

Boxing movies have, by necessity, been evolving recently because boxing, as a sport, is on its way out. Real Steel posits a future where boxing has made the choice to replace human fighters (not just boxers but apparently mixed martial artists as well) with robots in order to slake the bloodlust of the masses without damaging actual people. Hugh Jackman stars as a former boxer who’s made the shift to managing robot boxers, but is still scrambling to make ends meet. He’s bad with money, irresponsible, drinks too much, and more than a bit unpleasant. The plot contrives to give him an adorable, precocious moppet of a son (could he possibly help Hugh Jackman grow as a man and discover responsibility? MY GOD IT’S SUCH A CRAZY IDEA IT JUST MIGHT WORK!) and a boxing-mad love interest (Evangeline Lilly). Hugh Jackman spends the entire first act screwing up, but then the kid finds the robot from the trailer—who’s explicitly described as too small and lacking the power to make it in the fight game, because he’s gotta be an underdog—and the rest is given over to the boxing-movie plot of the underdog working his way up through the circuit (a pun I wish Real Steel had made more of) to an eventual title bout.

Real Steel isn’t a good movie. It’s got a few too many antagonists, and the only one of them who seems genuinely dangerous comes to a humiliating and anticlimactic end at the hands of a poorly developed ally (who has no apparent reason whatsoever to be on hand to deliver this end). There’s a bit of lazy xenophobia, it goes on about twenty minutes too long, and there’s some really awful dialogue. And yet, in spite of all this, it’s a hard movie to stay mad at because the things it prioritizes—shots of Hugh Jackman looking muscular, robot fisticuffs, and heartstring-tugging—it does well. It may be an exasperatingly lumpy piece of film art but it’s a highly effective example of film craft; sure the climax is a little late but it delivers the goods, and its subtle twist on the typical sports-movie underdog formula works both as the one element in the picture that deviates from formula and as an even more effective bit of heartstring-tugging.

So, bottom line: Real Steel is exactly what you thought it was when you heard there was a Hugh Jackman movie about robot boxing. And that stands no matter what you thought it was. The special effects and the fights are done well, and that’s really the important thing in a robot boxing movie. Fortunately, a movie doesn’t have to be good to be fun. And Real Steel, shameless as it indubitably is, is fun. I mean, come’s a Hugh Jackman movie about robot boxing.

Danny Bowes is a playwright, filmmaker and blogger. He is also a contributor to and

Chris Palmer
1. cmpalmer
It was exactly the film that I expected after seeing the trailers, but a tiny bit better. The trailer's extremely cliched and corny lines were slightly less cliched and corny in context. It was predictable, but I expected it to be predictable. The acting was adequate. The FX were impressive - I'm pretty critical usually, but I hard time distinguishing CGI from animatronics.

All of the four people I saw it with enjoyed it, though. A few people even cheered and applauded in our theater.
Stefan Jones
2. Stefan Jones
Saw Real Steel this morning.

I went in with moderately low expectations and ended up liking it a lot.

Something I noted: While "Atom" is a character, there is really no pretense that it is a person. It is depicted entirely as an extension of the operator; the degree of anthropomorphization is little more than would be shown a prized race car.

And I thought that was a great touch!

Hey . . . no mention of the bull? That first sequence was hilarious, although it veers more than a little far into Cruely to Animals territory.
Danny Bowes
3. DannyBowes
@Stefan -- The bit with the bull really bothered me, to the point where I had to block it out to focus on what was going on in the rest of the movie. Guess I blocked it very effectively! :)
Noneo Yourbusiness
4. Longtimefan
now that Rock'em Sock'em Robots is a movie we just have to get something thrown together for Hungry, Hungry, Hippos.

I imagine a young Peace Corps volunteer would find personal growth and awareness struggling with human encroachement into a wild life habitat where the hippos have gone on an eating rampage.
ofcourse there will be a young orphan to be adopted and a villianous hunter who only wants to kill the hippos instead of finding a way to help the people live with the hippos.

Jenga will be a bit of a tricky screen play.
Stefan Jones
5. N. Mamatas
But how does it rate against the Richard Matheson story upon which it is based? Or the Twilight Zone episode also based on the story?

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