As I mentioned in my trailer review of Real Steel, I am not a fan of boxing movies. I’m also not a fan of giant robot movies, though I do enjoy science fiction in general. I was baffled by the fact that I actually wanted to see Real Steel, even though it was a robot boxing movie that looked kind of silly and therefore should have turned me off, especially since the annoying title begs for misspellings (Reel Steel, Real Steal, etc) And yet the movie had something that was drawing me in, and I couldn’t figure out what it was, at least not from the basic storyline, which goes something like this:
A washed up human boxer gets his shot at the robot boxing title when his son unearths an old sparring bot in a junkyard.
Take away the robots and it’s the same plot as every boxing movie ever made – down and out underdog finally gets the chance to “be a contender.” I speculated as to whether Real Steel was a boxing movie with a sci-fi gimmick or a sci-fi movie with a boxing gimmick. It took seeing the full movie to make me realize the truth: that Real Steel is actually a father-son drama with a sci-fi boxing gimmick. And that’s what was drawing me in.
As a father-son drama Real Steel is still pretty basic. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a deadbeat ex-boxer who’s up to his neck in debt because he sucks at the new robot version of boxing that has taken over. His backer/girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lily) is about two seconds away from cutting him loose, because he can’t seem to hang on to any of the expensive robots he buys for longer than a minute before they’re reduced to scrap in the ring.
If you weren’t so hot, I’d want nothing to do with you.
Then all of a sudden his not-so perfect world is shattered when he’s saddled with the son he’s ignored from birth, Max (Dakota Goyo). Charlie still doesn’t want Max, but turns the situation to his advantage by selling the kid for 100 grand to his ex-wife’s sister’s husband (Max’s aunt really wants him to live with them). The only caveat is that Charlie has to look after Max for the summer while the husband takes his wife to Italy.
Max deserves better than me. And I deserve a big pile of money.
Max is a kid with a lot of spunk. He’s smarter and more rational than his dad in business and just about everything else and he brushes off his father’s attempts to pawn him off on Bailey. He figures out how to work his dad’s new Japanese boxing robot, and then after his dad destroys it in the ring, finds an old sparring bot named Atom in a junkyard and decides to spruce Atom up and give him a boxing career.
Charlie doesn’t want me, so I’ll make myself a giant robot dad instead.
Charlie thinks Atom is a hunk of junk, but Max believes in him. Max has no clue about anything mechanical, at least according to his actions at Bailey’s gym and later in the junkyard, but all of a sudden he’s installing voice recognition with Atom’s shadow function so that they can teach him to box using moves that Max has learned from video games. We’re lead to believe 11 year old boys can become ace mechanics overnight by drinking several cans of Dr. Pepper.
A had a computer! And a wrench! And I drank this soda! And now I’m a genius!
A victory in a sketchy underground cage match convinces Charlie that there’s money to be made from Atom, so he buys into Max’s crusade and helps out by teaching Atom his moves from human boxing and taking over control of the robot during the matches. He’s suddenly good at robot boxing now, despite having lost every previous match in the film.
Stand a little closer, Charlie, and you’ll really get what you deserve.
Throughout Atom’s rise toward the World Robot Boxing championship, they keep zooming in on Atom’s eyes like we’re supposed to be able to read something in them and hinting that Atom might understand what’s going on. Hinting is as far as it ever goes, though, because I think the filmmakers realized that if they made it clear that Atom was sentient they would have to start asking questions like: does Atom WANT to get the oil pounded out of him for the entertainment of a bunch of rednecks?
CHARLIE AND MAX: Get up Atom!!!!
ATOM: Forget it. I want a lawyer.
Besides, robot intelligence is not the point of the movie. Charlie and Max are the point of the movie. They’re very cute as they bond through robot boxing, but there are a few problems with their characters. Charlie had to be a deadbeat in order to have room to grow over the course of the story, but having him sell Max so callously makes him a little too much of an ass. Max meanwhile has just lost his mother and is continually faced with his father’s rejection, but is never sad, even for a minute. He does get angry about the selling, but he never asks his dad the obvious question: why did you abandon me?
I’m cute. Why don’t you like me?
It’s easy to forget about that, though, when Max struts into the ring dancing like a contestant on So You Think You Can Dance with Atom dancing right along behind him. It’s the cutest part of the movie and the studio hasn’t released any photos of it, which is a big mistake, because that’s the part that’s going to convince women to go to Real Steel with their men, who are going for the robotic violence. But make no mistake, you should go. It’s flawed, sure, but you’ll still enjoy yourself. It’s just got that something that makes you bond with the characters. It’s called heart.