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 on….it’s a Hugh Jackman movie about robot boxing.