The underbot – Real Steel review

Real SteelStarring Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo and Evangeline Lilly. Directed by Shawn Levy. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

At the end of this decade, everything will be pretty much the same as it is now, with two gargantuan exceptions: 12-foot-tall boxing robots will become our primary source of entertainment, and, if Hugh Jackman’s outfits are any indication, cut-off sleeveless shirts will be all the rage (one modern-day retailer seems to be ahead of the curve). This is the not-quite-dystopia painted for us by Shawn Levy in his serviceable sci-fi family flick Real Steel. Based (loosely) on legendary author Richard Matheson’s short story Steel, it tells of a world in which the sport of fisticuffs is reserved solely for machines who can take a brutal beating, as opposed to fleshy humans who have organs and brains that need to not be pulverized.

Jackman stars as Charlie Kenton, a former pugilist turned promoter who travels around the U.S. with his fighting bots in tow. Each is inevitably destroyed, and Kenton winds up further and further in debt to a variety of unsavoury types (including Kevin Durand, looking uncannily like Christopher Walken). The lone-wolf receives some bad news whilst on the road: an old flame has died, and his estranged 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo) now needs a guardian. Offered 100 large by his sister-in-law’s wealthy and not-too-keen-to-adopt husband (James Rebhorn), Charlie accepts the challenge and takes the “precocious” (read: obnoxious) kid under his wing. Raised on video games, Max proves surprisingly adept at working and training those rock ‘em sock ‘em robots to battle, and a scrappy rust-bucket called Atom that he found at a junkyard becomes a surprise contender for the World Robot Boxing championship. Also: father/son bonding.

It may sound like an even more blatant and heartless distillation of teen boy fantasies than Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogy (here we have robots punching robots without all that nonsense exposition about all-sparks and what not), but at least Levy’s flick is cohesive and mostly enjoyable. It’s easily the director’s best film to date; perhaps his only good film too. Producer Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints are all over this though, and not just because of Mauro Fiore’s ultra-slick cinematography and the superb special effects. Just as the first Transformers purported to be, Real Steel is about a boy’s relationship with his favourite toy. A shame that Goyo nearly undoes all the film’s good work by being super-irritating (his hip-hop dance routine with the robot is a low point; not just in the movie, but in all of our lives).

Thankfully, Hugh Jackman delivers by doing his Hugh Jackman thing, and nice supporting turns from Evangeline Lilly (the love interest), Hope Davis (the sister-in-law) and Anthony Mackie (the fight announcer) don’t hurt any. John Gatins’ screenplay doesn’t exactly avoid clichés, but he and Levy deliver a nifty – even somewhat-stirring – finale. All the fight sequences are rather satisfying actually, although they don’t match the human in-the-ring drama of Rocky, Raging Bull, The Fighter et al. The film seems to even acknowledge as much, stating that the soul and animal drive of a living, breathing being always trumps machinery. But this is hardly a satire on the state of culture and cinema (even though Jackman’s character laments the fact people have grown tired of seeing people ‘fight’, and would rather watch explosive special effects instead). In the final battle, we watch Jackman “drive” Atom by shadowboxing, whilst another human controls a competitor with a joypad. This isn’t human vs. robot. This is Wii vs. Xbox.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Real Steel opens in Australian cinemas October 6, 2011.

One Response to “The underbot – Real Steel review”

  1. The Self-Taught Writer Reply October 3, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    this or Horrible Bosses?

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