To state that the new Hugh Jackman film, Real Steel is Rocky meets Transformers gives nothing away. In fact, if you had opportunity to watch the film’s trailer, you will likely know everything you need to know about the plot. Charlie (Jackman) is a robot boxing operator struggling to make ends meet with inferior (and old) robot fighters. Running from the various shady characters to which he owes money, Charlie is informed that he has an 11-year-old son who has been left in his custody after the death of his mother. Reluctantly, Charlie goes to court where he is met with his sister-in-law and husband who negotiates a deal with Charlie for $100,000 to become legal guardians of young Max (Dakota Goyo who played young Thor earlier this year). The only provision is that Charlie take care of Max for a few weeks while the in-laws travel to Italy for a vacation.
Max is a stubborn and strong willed child who is fascinated with Charlie’s profession and soon barters his way to accompany Charlie to a fight between Charlie’s newly purchased robot and a superior opponent. Charlie’s robot ends up metal scraps by the end of the bout and Charlie and Max then head to the scrap yard in an attempt to find parts to rebuild a new robot.
That’s when Max finds Atom, a sparring bot that has all but been buried in the scrap yard. Max winces Atom out and soon convinces Charlie to give him a shot against a robot opponent. Of course, Atom wins and the story is then in full gear heading towards a predictable conclusion where the underdog and smaller robot Atom, will face off against a larger and undefeated robot named Zeus in a sold out boxing match for the ages.
The promotion for Real Steel in the upcoming months leading to its release seemed overly promising. So promising that Dreamworks studio was already working on a sequel even before the Real Steel was released in theatres. After all, director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) was given a underdog story riddled with enough special effects and potential heart-tugging moments between a father and his child to appeal to the action fans while also producing an inspiring story that would work on getting families going to the theatre together.
So what went wrong?
Hugh Jackman does his best in a role that could have been played by just about anyone. He is asked to yell most of his lines through the film and does his best not to wink at the screen through all the films’ product placement (Budweiser, Sprint, HP, Dr. Pepper, bing….). But the screenplay as scripted by John Gatins via a story by Dan Gilroy (Two for the Money, Freejack), makes Charlie to be too keen of an asshole and too unbelievably rude and unfeeling towards his own son. Even more impossible to swallow is the character of Max. Max is smart – too smart. For an 11-year-old, this kid is Mensa material and knows more about the history of boxing, the value and worth of money, computer and electronics and has more adult adages and words of wisdom to rival anyone twice his age. The combination of Charlie’s A-holeism and Max’s super smarts takes audiences out of the film not allowing us to relate to any of the two main characters.
Luckily, most of the audience at the screening didn’t buy tickets to watch a father and son combo develop a bond of such stereotypical nature that you are as likely to gag on the sentiment as you will the driest of Thanksgiving turkey stuffing. We paid for the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robot fighting and to that end, Real Steel produces the goods.
There is no shortage of interesting robots and fights throughout the film to keep audiences entertained between the sappy and poorly constructed character developments. The fight sequences are well choreographed and provide some crowd-pleasing Rocky-style moments leading up to the big event. Having Jackman’s character explain every strategy and punch to his younger counterpart during each fight was stretching our patience and catering to a lower IQ level of an audience, but with some thunderous punches and a few flurries of jabs and uppercuts, we were entertained while the cameras were focused in the ring.
A few subplots including Charlie’s love interest (played by Evangeline Lily), a former fighter that continues to torment Charlie and the owners/creators of the massive Zeus (add Rocky IV comparison here), dilute the film and unfortunately bring the production to a non-family friendly 2+ hours of sock and sap. So instead of having a Rocky film, we are left with more of a Transformer’s taste – a metallic taste that would be better with a little rinsing.