Screen Rant’s Ben Kendrick reviews Real Steel

The sheer mention of giant robots fighting to the death is likely to remind moviegoers of Michael Bay’s Transformers films – but Real Steel is definitely a different breed of metal-on-metal action. Based on Richard Matheson’s 1956 short story “Steel,” Real Steel isn’t an action adventure about giant war robots, it’s a much more intimate story about an estranged father and son – as well as their not-so-giant boxing robot.

Director Shawn Levy is expecting big things from his near-future portrayal of a world where human boxing has bowed out in favor of the WRB (World Robot Boxing) League – as well as the less official, but equally brutal, shady world of underground robot boxing.

But is Real Steel the real deal when it comes to fun Fall flicks?

Fortunately, the answers is yes. Despite a number of problems that will probably keep it from being a true box office champion (such as an overlong runtime), Real Steel delivers some exciting action in the ring – as well as competent (albeit self-indulgent and thin) outside-the-ring human drama. Its success at the box office might be somewhat hampered by a PG-13 rating, which could have probably been shaved down to PG, given that the film is mostly a “family-friendly” endeavor that only flirts with dark story moments. However, despite earning the film a higher rating, this waffling between hammy kid-movie moments and a few brutal human-on-human fights will only cause some audience members to roll their eyes on occasion and isn’t likely to detract from any enjoyment the film has to offer – especially given the tongue-in-cheek premise and execution of the plot.

Real Steel follows down-on-his-luck robot boxing manager, Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) who drifts from place to place and fight to fight, racking up gambling debts and enemies, until he is notified that the mother of his estranged son, Max (Dakota Goyo) has died – leaving the boy orphaned. Max’s aunt (as well as her fiancé’) vies for custody, and desperate for money, Charlie agrees to hand over uncontested custodial rights to the boy for $100,000. However, the fiancé’ does not want to cancel an expensive European vacation the couple has planned for the summer, and forces Charlie to babysit Max in the interim as part of the deal. Charlie reluctantly agrees and, over the course of their time together, the pair form a tight relationship as they pit a junky sparring bot against some of the biggest heavy-hitters in the WRB.

Noisy Boy, Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, and Optimus Prime (?) in 'Real Steel'

Central to the success of Real Steel is the father and son relationship depicted by Jackman and Goyo. As mentioned, there are some self-indulgent moments and the progression is probably going to be pretty predictable for anyone who has ever seen an estranged father/son relationship in a film before, but Real Steel deserves a lot of credit for not gumming up the plot with too much melodrama. In the hands of a different writer or director, the film might not have been able to show the same amount of restraint – and could have become frustrating and stagy instead of exciting. The relationship is worked into the story in a competent way – it’s rarely manipulative and both parties are instrumental in moving the story forward, not just reacting to external events. It doesn’t hurt that Jackman and Goyo, unlike many onscreen father/son combos, actually have believable chemistry – which helps elevate the tension and/or humor in several key scenes.

No doubt one of the biggest draws of the film will be the action set pieces that feature robot-vs-robot action. For the most part these sequences live up to expectation with some very believable CGI work as well as an enjoyable mix of robots that each feature different fighting styles. While not every bot is as interesting as some of the featured fighters, each of the combatants offers a different insight into the world of Real Steel. Whether competing in underground fighting arenas, backyard brawls, or the glitz and glamor of an official WRB ring, it’s clear that Levy wanted the robots to flesh out this near-future world – not just beat each other into nuts and bolts.

Unfortunately, while the audience is offered glimpses into the various competitive levels of robot boxing, anyone hoping for a deeper mythology or robust explanation of this fictional world will probably be left somewhat underwhelmed. Levy is planning a sequel that will no doubt dig deeper, but the world-building in Real Steel is ultimately pretty thin – despite some cool scene-to-scene glimpses. At times, the overarching narrative seems to hint at an inter-connected origin for Kenton’s main bot, Atom, but nothing comes of the veiled allusions in the current storyline.

Noisy Boy and Midas battle in the ring

This lack of cohesion in the current story, coupled with an obvious focus on setting up a sequel, is ultimately frustrating – especially given the film’s relatively simple human dramatic threads and overlong 127 minute run time. It might be hard to imagine that a film about CGI robots duking it out in a boxing ring could be become stale after awhile, but the closing act of Real Steel gets weighed down in too much sequel setup and not enough payoff for the existing narrative threads.

While the lack of information does make for compelling Real Steel 2 potential, there’s no doubt the current narrative gets short-shrift and some of the established plot lines could’ve been more fully realized in this film. It isn’t a case of unreasonable expectations or wishing Levy had gone deeper into unexplored mythology, it’s a matter of wanting the film to address existing story threads, instead of intentionally withholding, just to have a starting point for a sequel.

Sequel or no sequel, Real Steel offers plenty of fun and engaging moments – of both the human character drama and giant CGI robot battle variety. Reactions to the movie will be mixed: some filmgoers may walk away feeling cheated or underwhelmed by the closing minutes of the film, while others may be excited to see what comes next for the Kentons and their robot fighter, Atom. That said, even though it gets knocked down once in awhile, Real Steel still delivers plenty of exciting punches.

If you’ve already seen the film and want to talk about various plot details without ruining them for others, head over to our Real Steel spoilers discussion.

If you’re still on the fence about Real Steel, check out the trailer below:

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Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick – and let us know what you thought of the film below:

Real Steel is now in theaters.

Our Rating:

3.5 out of 5
(Very Good)