“Real Steel” is as cold and heartless as the metal from which it’s name derives (2011)

Being a relatively large sci-fi nerd, going into Real Steel I had a number of questions.  “Why is it that a civilization would have the technology to create complex and sophisticated robots and use them only for boxing matches?”  “Are the robots sentient?  Are they aware that the hundreds of humans who scream at them to destroy each other could easily be squashed underneath their giant and powerful hands like little, annoying, redneck bugs?  If they did, couldnt this lead to some sort of awesome punching robot apocalypse?”  I was excited.  While I knew that the film couldn’t possibly go as dark as I hoped it would, surely director Shawn Levy would realize that you can’t just create a universe where giant fighting robots exist and not address some of the ramifications of, well, the existence of giant fighting robots right?!  Right?!

Wrong.  This film is a mess from beginning to end.  It’s a movie made with the same formula as the Transformers franchise that somehow manages to have less heart.  It’s filled with idiotic, horribly unsympathetic characters who exist in this odd alternate reality earth that seems to be run by moronic boxing fans.  I don’t know how, but with Real Steel Shawn Levy manages to make the mute, artificial , robotic characters more human than the actual human beings.  It’s a senseless mess — truly one of the worst films I’ve had the displeasure of seeing this year.

The following is a list of the film’s central characters.  I tried to think of a more clever and eloquent way to articulate just how horrible every character in this film is, not just in performance but on the page as well, and nothing was able to beat out the cold matter-of-factness of an old-fashioned list.  So here they are, in order of horribleness:

Charlie (Hugh Jackman) (Leading Role) – Former boxer turned robot fighter pilot.

  •  Sells his son for $100,000.
  • Accrues a huge amount of gambling debt with no intentions of paying anyone.
  • Exploits everyone, human and robot alike, with blatant disregard for their feelings or well-being

Max (Dakota Goyo) (Leading Role) – Shrill, annoying little kid and son of Charlie with aspirations of following in the footsteps of his father — both in horribleness and profession — and becoming a robo-boxer.

  • Throws a fit when his aunt — the only person in the film who actually cares about him — wants to take him away from his father and the dangerous world of underground robo-boxing just because he won’t be able to play with robots anymore.

Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly) (Supporting Role) – The daughter of Charlie’s old boxing coach.

  • Only exists within the film to provide romantic interest for Charlie, even though there is absolutely no way anyone would ever want to have sex with a person like Charlie in real life without first being paid a large amount of money.
  • Is dull, rote and pointless on the script and in Evangeline Lilly’s performance.

Debra (Hope Davis) – The sister to Max’s deceased mother.

  • Tries with all of her might to convince Charlie to let her adopt his son, and then decides to go on vacation to Italy once she succeeds, leaving the kid with the guy she called an irresponsible parent in the previous scene.

Marvin (James Rebhorn) – Max’s old but incredibly rich uncle in law.

  • Pays Charlie $100,000 to convince him that Max is better of living with Aunt Debra and him than in a foster home.  Decides to go on vacation in Italy afterwards, abandoning the kid.

Every extra and non-speaking character in this film – Either a crazy unsophisticated redneck or an unhinged, bloodthirsty biker.

  • Screams nonstop while watching two robots fight each other.
  • Supports a sport that could possibly lead to the end of their civilization.

We’re asked, in one way or another, to care about every person on that list during the film, and it never works.  Our central character Charlie, as previously mentioned, is a bit of a douche bag to say the least.  A former boxer, Charlie is forced into the world of robot boxing when civilization (for reasons that are never completely explained) up and decides that it’s a bit tired of watching mere human beings fight each other.  When Charlie learns that his ex-wife, whom he hasn’t spoken to in 10 years, has passed away leaving their son without anyone to care for him, he shrugs.  When asked to go to court to either sign over his custody or take the kid, he punches the social worker in the face — and they still give him the kid.  Being the horrible human being that he is, instead of actually taking care of the child he helped bring into this world, he sells him to his sister-in-law.  Yep, this is the guy you’re going to be asked to care about at the end of the film.  But because the aunt and uncle have to for some reason go to Italy — without the kid they just spent $100,000 for — Max is forced to stay with his dad for a couple of weeks.  Turns out he’s into robots, the two form a relationship through the sport, and melodrama ensues.

The emotional crux of the story revolves around Charlie finally realizing how awesome the film’s writers think his son is, and while I know it worked for some other people judging by a portion of the reviews I’ve read, I just couldn’t really bring myself to care about the father son relationship.  If anything, I wanted it to fail.  Charlie is made to be such an unlikable character from the onset that it takes what is in my opinion too large of a leap of faith to actually get behind his catharsis.  This is a guy who sold his son after all, in the hands of more capable writers the transition from horrible human being to sympathetic hero is completely possible (see Attack The Block), but Real Steel falls short.

To the films credit however — and I suspect this may be why a lot of critics are actually writing favorably about it — the fighting, and animation work on the robots is really well done.  The robots are well designed and really cool looking, and when the fighting actually does go down it feels real — you don’t get the same sense that two giant heaps of scrap metal are violently flailing at each other like you do in the Transformers films (you might even say that the steel in Real Steel feels real (hyuck hyuck hyuck)).  The action is further enhanced by Danny Elfman’s awesome score.  It sounds like something written by Tom Morello: guitar heavy rock that perfectly fits the on-screen action.

Because of this mix of good fight choreography, excellent special effects, and a well composed backing score, I was actually able to form an emotional connection with the films central bot, Atom.  Almost to the point that I begun to feel sorry for the guy.  Here’s this robot who for all intense and purposes was abandoned by humanity, forced to live out the rest of his robot life embedded in a cliff in some junkyard.  And then when he finally is saved, it’s by this shrieking banshee of a kid that forces him to fight other robots.  Because of his relatively small size in comparison to his opponents, and the lack of competence of the people controlling him, he takes quite a few beatings.  At the end of the film when everyone was having their clichéd “oh yay we just won an emotional and physical battle in the ring” moment, I almost hoped he would go nuts and just massacre everyone in the stadium.  At least then we wouldn’t have to suffer through more Max and Charlie in the sequel that is bound to happen in a couple of years.

Real Steel is the type of movie that pays absolutely zero attention to detail.  If you start to look at it with a critical eye for even a second, and ask some of the question I asked at the beginning of this review, it falls apart.  This wouldn’t be such a large issue if it was evident that the film’s producers chose to instead focus their time on other aspects of the film.  But aside from some well done visual effects and fight choreography, intelligence, compassion, and effort are woefully absent in almost every other aspect of the film.

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Categories: Reviews

Author:Ryan Crockett

Super-geek and cinephile, artist and writer, Ryan Crockett knows way too much about the French Revolution.

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One Comment on ““Real Steel” is as cold and heartless as the metal from which it’s name derives (2011)”

  1. October 8, 2011 at 10:36 pm #

    “To the films credit however — and I suspect this may be why a lot of critics are actually writing favorably about it — the fighting, and animation work on the robots is really well done.”

    Yup. Thats why I had to cop to it and give it a B.

    I saw every single thing you mentioned… I mean… there is some BAD writing and characters going on here. Some really really crap level stuff. But in my gut, I was like… that was a couple of hours where I was more happy than miserable.

    Meanwhile, I can’t fault anyone for picking on the crippled kid. I mean, if anything its hard to avoid. This movie is pretty rancid in so many ways. And if anything, you do a really enjoyable job of bashing it. The blow by blow of how every character is really a piece of shite was a nice touch!! 😀

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