Movie Review: Real Steel (2011)

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Dakota Goyo, Noisy Boy and Hugh Jackman in Real Steel
Photo: DreamWorks Pictures / Touchstone Pictures

Real Steel is cliche-riddled drivel centered on Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), a deadbeat dad that sells his son for $100,000 after his mother dies. No, it’s not a dark comedy. You’re not meant to laugh at the idea Touchstone Pictures and Night at the Museum director Shawn Levy thought they could pass this off as some kind of feel good, father-son story. You’re actually supposed to like this guy and cheer for him to see the error in his ways and boy does Levy try his best to convince you to do just that as he pours on the schmaltz in an attempt to overshadow the fact Charlie is a terrible person with little to no redeeming qualities.

You haven’t met him yet, so let me introduce you to Charlie, a one-time mediocre boxer who’s a bit down on his luck (primarily because he’s a bullheaded idiot). The year is 2020 and boxing is no longer about humans beating one another until they suffer brain damage and bite someone’s ear off, instead giant remote controlled robots are the center of attention as their owners pull of combo maneuvers in what amounts to a real life video game. Charlie, as it turns out, isn’t very good at this either, considering he’s massively in debt and is down to his last bot, which is instantly destroyed by a 2,000-pound rodeo bull. That’s a shame.

It’s at this moment this genius learns his 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo) is now without a mother and the family Charlie left behind is now coming around just to get on his nerves. Fortunately for Charlie, his sister (Hope Davis) and her wealthy husband (James Rebhorn) want to adopt Max, but before they do that there is that all important trip to Tuscany they had planned. Hey, Charlie has a solution, he’ll gladly babysit the kid for the summer and then deliver him in a few months without putting up a fuss… for the fee of $100,000. Cha-ching! Time to buy me a big ol’ killer robot! And he does…

Minutes later Charlie is on the horn buying one-time robot-boxing great Noisy Boy for $45,000 while dragging his son along for the ride. Minutes after that Noisy Boy is destroyed due to Charlie’s arrogance and stupidity and this father-son duo are breaking into a scrap yard in the pouring rain to find new parts. It’s this moment screenwriter John Gatins gets all fancy and sends Max falling down a massive cliff where he’s saved by the extended hand of an entire robot buried beneath the dirt.

“Can I keep him dad? Can I?”

“Sure, just drag him up this muddy, rain-soaked cliff you just slid down for the last five minutes and he’s yours. I’m going to go wait in the truck!”

“Awww dad!”

And that’s how Max got his very own robot, a robot that wouldn’t necessarily bring he and his father together, but sure as hell was going to make them a bunch of money! Woo hoo! Score one for families!

From there on out it’s just one situation after another where Charlie takes advantage of his young son. Max tends his new robot — a generation 2 sparring bot named Atom — and it begins showing promise as a bot that may actually be able to win some fights and in turn win them some money. Yup, this father-son story is about a dad that sees an opportunity and a son that clearly wants a father figure so bad he’s willing to settle on whatever comes along.

Add to that some cool robot effects, a massive amount of product placement ranging from Dr. Pepper to HP to New York’s Bing Arena (invest in Bing now, it’s going to be big in 2020), a Danny Elfman score reminiscent of the work he put in on The Kingdom and a couple of Eminem tracks and you’ve got yourself a Rocky for the modern age. A commercial film that tries to be all things to all people without insulting any of them, provided you don’t look at a film logically and are more than willing to allow obvious scenarios to play on your emotions as if you were one of the film’s soulless robots. A small price to pay for entertainment right?

The worst part about all of this is that there is actually a solid basis for a story here. Why screenwriters feel they have to pepper films like this with overly sentimental cliches is beyond me. However, I have to give kudos to Jackman, he played his part as if he was in the greatest film off all time and Dakota Goyo as his young son Max isn’t too bad either, even if he seemed like a grown up version of Jake Lloyd who played Young Anakin in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

Where my questions come in is to ask why did Charlie have to not only be one of the worst fathers ever, but an overall bad person? Sure, I’m willing to allow he may have fallen on some hard times and has built up a defense mechanism, but show me some sign there may actually be a decent human being inside this caveman. Take for example the introduction to Charlie’s long-time friend and one-time lover Bailey (“Lost” star Evangeline Lilly), it’s enough to put your teeth on edge as Charlie strips his shirt off and, in not so many words, suggests a roll in the hay. Couple that with a creepy crawl into the sack late in the film and I’m looking at a guy that should be driving around in a van with blacked out windows as opposed to a semi truck pretending he’s Sly Stallone in Over the Top.

The fact Levy or anyone involved in this project expects me to believe this overgrown man-child ever learns anything by the film’s end is insulting. Yes, I’m fully aware this film is largely intended for kids and the kids in my audience loved it, but at the end of the film they were walking out of the theater kicking and punching the air, not discussing the story aspects. I’m willing to admit kids don’t care about the narrative, but I do, and in those terms this movie is a giant system failure.

GRADE: D-