Real Steel

This was an excellent movie – one of the best I’ve seen this year.

Real Steel is a light-hearted movie set in the near future, where boxing has become a big-money sport performed between remote-controlled robots – kind of like Robot Wars as 1-on-1 boxing matches. I emphasise “light-hearted” because some of the financial recklessness and familial irresponsibility would aggravate me if I took it too seriously!

Anyway, Jackman plays the mostly likeable Charlie Keton, an ex-boxer now running boxer robots. Next to broke, he leans heavily on his ex Bailey Tallet, who runs her deceased father’s failing robot gym. Kenton is tasked with looking after his son Max for the summer and is annoyed to find that Max is fascinated by robot boxing. Max forces his father to take him along to the fights, and soon digs up an ancient Generation Two robot, which he wants to field in his own fights.

The movie is like a comic book (or anime, given the tint of animistic philosophy and the elevation of the scientist), with completely over-the-top antagonists: a bald, eyepatch-wearing opponent; a spitting mohawked punk; a pair of geeks; an emotionless, reclusive Japanese genius; an incredibly pretty, mega-wealthy Russian heiress who tries to buy the protagonist. Their reactions as the protagonists stand up to them are absolutely hilarious. In many ways, Real Steel reminded me of Angelic Layer.

There is plenty of humour in the movie; the son does brilliantly as a child actor who doesn’t irritate me, and his aunt steers away from being a one-note figure (seeing her and her husband captivated was a highlight). The father-son aspect was predictable but still heart-warming, and gave the film a solid emotional centre – supposedly Steven Spielberg’s influence. Real Steel acts as a commentary on the WWE, UFC industries, and also includes homages to Rocky and Rock’em Sock’em Robots.

The movie is based on a 1956 short story by Richard Matheson, writer of the novels “I am Legend” and “What Dreams May Come”, which were turned into moves. I really liked the near-future setting (the director says 2020), with low-key, plausible uses for technology, and a range of settings from rustic towns that can’t afford robots, all the way up to money-spinning tournaments sponsored by Microsoft, Coca-Cola and Sprint. The product placement was fairly obvious, but in this case I felt it actually helped emphasise the “big business, big money” image. The sense of realism and plausibility was one of the movie’s greatest strengths: town fairs, rural roads, bars, “staff” shirts, IDs on lanyards, exclusive lounges and media commentators rooted the story in a setting not too different to our own, and also allowed a contrast between small-town nostalgia and big city business. Also, the depiction of financial hardship and struggles against obsolescence is a good fit with the current environment of economic difficulties.

The robot design – such as Noisy Boy’s (his kanji says “Super Bad Boy) marquee displays – felt solid and plausible, and the low-angle shots gave them a sense of scale. Supposedly animatronics was used extensively, rather than CGI – ultimately I didn’t notice anything that broke my suspension of disbelief.

Real Steel has some very impressive-looking robot boxing – multiple world-title holder Sugar Ray Leonard choreographed them, and portrays the techniques and tactics in an easy-to-understand way that I really engaged with. The final round was brilliant, with the action in the ring made more personal and visceral by a foreshadowed plot device. There was much cheering in the cinema throughout the movie, as the main characters prevailed.

The film was fantastic – totally recommended for sci-fi fans and families. There’s talk about a potential sequel (depending on box office takings – though I’m dubious looking at Wikipedia’s numbers) but this is a fun, enjoyable movie in any case.


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