Earlier this year, Michael Bay completed his run of movies based on the Transformers franchise. The trilogy left as it had arrived: With spectacular VFX and jaw-dropping action scenes, strategically placed between an oppressive amount of worthless comedy relief characters and horrendously crude attempts at humor. Of course, Michael Bay wasn’t the only guiding voice behind the franchise. Don Murphy and Steven Spielberg were exec-producers on all three Transformers movies, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Susan Montford — Murphy’s wife and business partner — had some influence behind the scenes as well.
And now — just when the Transformers money train has ended for the foreseeable future — all three exec producers have brought out Real Steel.
Before I go any further, let’s address the elephant in the room. I know the credits say that the movie was “based in part” on a short story released by Richard Matheson, which also served as the basis for a “Twilight Zone” episode. The problem is that according to all of my sources, this movie took out everything from the original text except for the part about fighting robots.
I know I’m not the first person to say this, nor will I be the last, but let’s just call this movie what it is: It’s a Rock’em Sock’em Robots movie. This is a toy-based potential franchise in which CGI robots beat the crap out of each other, brought to us by the producers of the Transformers films.
Mercifully (and surprisingly, I confess), Real Steel doesn’t have any characters who are aggressively annoying, there’s no crass humor of any kind, the running time is kept to a respectable two hours, and the VFX are restrained enough that it’s always plain to see what’s going on. Basically, this movie doesn’t share its failures with that of the Transformers films. It fails for reasons all its own.
Having said that, none of this movie’s problems can be pinned on the cast. Hugh Jackman is on fire here, finally managing to bring some charisma and action star cred to a role that isn’t Wolverine. A young actor named Dakota Goyo takes his breakout role and runs like hell with it, somehow delivering a character who’s precocious and smart-aleck without becoming unbearable. Evangeline Lilly is absolutely radiant here, and a woefully underrated talent named Anthony Mackie makes effective use of what little screen time he has.
When the film gives these actors the leeway to work their magic, the results are simply electrifying. There are a lot of scenes in which the cast is wringing every possible drop of emotion out of this screenplay, investing a ton of effort and heart that pays off in spades. Such a pity, then, that the actors are stuck with these characters.
Mackie plays a bookmaker who might as well be a cardboard cutout for all that we learn about him and for how he conveniently shows up exactly where the plot needs him to be. Lilly plays a love interest who’s useful for exposition, but otherwise has zero effect on the plot. The villains in this movie are even worse, all of whom are painfully two-dimensional and evil to a mustache-twirling degree, all for no better reason than because of lazy screenwriting.
But of course, the real core of this story is in the relationship between Charlie (Jackman) a former flesh-and-blood boxer who’s getting his ass beaten in robot matches, and Max (Goyo), the son Charlie barely knew he had. This kind of pairing is very common in movies and it might have worked well in this one, if only the filmmakers hadn’t forgotten something: For the relationship to work, the two characters have to learn from each other. They have to help each other grow, and that’s where this movie falls flat on its face.
Throughout the film, Max is an extremely static character. This is an 11-year-old kid who’s a robotics expert and a boxing fanatic, not to mention fluent in at least two languages. Right up until the very end of this movie, every single decision that this kid makes turns out to be the right one, even when Charlie disregards his advice again and again. Hell, this kid doesn’t even seem all that upset over the fact that his mom died just a few days ago. Really, the only times when Max slips up is when the movie temporarily forgets how smart the kid is and has him do something uncharacteristically rash and stupid for the sake of plot convenience.
Put simply, Max is perfect. He has no room to grow as a character, except to be proven right. This kills the father/son dynamic from the outset, since Charlie has absolutely nothing to offer Max. Yes, the movie tries to argue that Max needs Charlie’s boxing expertise, but that dog won’t hunt. Max’s first robot bout makes it abundantly clear that the kid is perfectly capable of making his way through the robot boxing world without his dad. In fact, Charlie says as much himself!
This brings me to our supposed main character, Charlie, who is an abject failure as a character and as a human being. Shortly after we first meet him, Charlie loses a perfectly good robot because he was too distracted by some college-age pretty face. At the end of the first act, Charlie loses another robot to the scrap heap — this one a world-famous bot that won several titles — because he was stupid enough to take a robot he’d never used before and challenge a local champion. Also, this is a guy who makes fifty thousand dollars off the custody hearing of his own son.
These are not the actions of a likeable guy. These are not the actions of a man who can’t seem to catch a break no matter how hard he tries. These are the actions of a fuck-up. They’re events that might have been easily avoided if Charlie had used an ounce of common sense. Charlie is an idiot and an asshole, plain and simple.
So naturally, Charlie has to rely on Max to provide a means of emotional growth, all while having no decent pearls of wisdom to offer in return. Long story short (too late!), Max stumbles onto a fighter bot in the stupidest possible way at the start of the second act. Charlie starts whining about how the robot, name of Atom, is a totally worthless POS that doesn’t stand a chance of winning any matches. Max wins a match in spite of him. Charlie and Max team up to improve Atom’s fighting abilities, they start winning matches, and they build up enough of a reputation for an invite to a big-league match.
At this point, some corporate bitch with a forced accent offers a ton of money to buy Atom as a sparring partner for the reigning world champ bot, Zeus. Max insists that Atom isn’t for sale, but Charlie wants to take the offer. After all, he argues, Atom doesn’t stand a chance against a professional fighting robot, so it’s better to sell now while there’s still something to sell.
Oh, for… We’re doing this again?!
Charlie was all gung-ho about accepting the invitation and getting his first professional robot fight, but mention a big pile of cash and he’s back to whining about how Atom will never win. He could easily have told the woman it was no deal, but that would demonstrate some backbone and show how much he’s come to love the robot and these experiences with his son. So instead, the filmmakers threw the last half-hour of character development right out the window. Screw these writers and screw this character.
I suppose I should talk about Atom as well, but I really don’t see much point. The filmmakers try to suggest that Atom is at least semi-sentient, but there’s never any concrete evidence of this, nor does the point lead anyplace interesting. Instead, the “semi-sentient” angle is used as a reason for Max’s growing sentimental attachment to the robot. It also works as an implicit and emotionally manipulative excuse for why the robot can magically keep reactivating after so many times hitting the mat. Again, lazy writing.
However, I must admit that Atom looks great. In fact, despite the fact that so many corporate logos and name-brand products appear completely unchanged in the near future (and wow, there is a ton of product placement in this movie), the production design in general is outstanding. I know it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the robots look wonderful, given the state of visual effects nowadays, but god damn. The robots are animated fluidly, their designs are bright and colorful, and the effects team does a fantastic job of mixing CGI with practical stand-ins.
I do have one minor nitpick, however: Why stick to entirely humanoid designs? The film already uses a robot with two heads, but why stop there? Why not make a robot with two sets of arms? I can understand the lack of projectile weapons for fear of audience safety, but how about some buzzsaws or hammers or axes? What about some concealed or interchangeable weapons? Seriously, if this isn’t explored in the sequel (which is already in development, by the way), I’ll be very disappointed.
Still, any slight points I take away for design creativity have to be returned four times over for the fight scenes. Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard helped choreograph the boxing scenes, and it really shows, because the effort and care that went into these fight sequences are plainly visible at all times. The outstanding animation, the fantastic choreography, and the soaring music by Danny Elfman (?!) all mesh wonderfully together to deliver action that’s truly exciting to watch.
Alas, this doesn’t make up for the movie’s second-biggest flaw: This movie has no theme. The ethics of robot fighting in an age of AI might have worked, if the whole “Atom is semi-sentient” angle went anyplace interesting. The underdog angle might have worked as an anti-corporate theme, if the corporate douchebags had more than five minutes of screen time or if the climax had ended differently. Speaking of which, the climax would have made for a great humans vs. machines conflict, if only Zeus had fought by way of its much-vaunted algorithms instead of being controlled by a human pilot. I could keep going, but there are so many themes in here that were treated in superficial ways, abandoned completely when they started going someplace interesting.
Real Steel is pure cinematic junk food. The presentation is slicker than glass, but it’s ultimately hollow and devoid of anything new. The fight scenes are thrilling to watch and the film is very well-acted, but the screenplay is totally predictable and the character development is DOA. That said, the film shows a lot of heart and it’s obvious that the filmmakers were putting their every effort into the end result. The movie is far and away better than it had any right to be, but in my humble opinion, it still wasn’t good enough.