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Real Steel

October 8, 2011
Real Steel

Okay, let’s get the obvious joke out of the way: the cavalcade of toy-inspired movies continues with an adaptation of Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots. But, seriously, despite being the second movie this summer to feature humanoid hulks of metal beating the hydraulic fluid out of each other, Real Steel is nowhere near as unwatchable as Transformers 3 was. In fact, it’s actually rather good, especially for a boxing movie.

So it’s 2020 or so, and man-on-man fighting has been edged out by robot boxing. What does oilsport have that bloodsport doesn’t? well, as brutal as mixed martial arts bouts can get, it’s pretty much impossible for one brawler to rip the other’s leg off — even if it were allowed — and after that point the other guy’s not about to push himself up and hop back for more. These robots are just massive mounds of remote-controlled steel, so there’s nobody to get hurt.

This is actually a point worth making clear: there is no suggestion of an actual strong-AI here, which would bring up all sorts of philosophical and ethical questions, and that would be completely above this story’s level. It’s clear that to whatever extent any of the robots are personified, it’s projection on the human characters’ parts rather than any “personhood” going on inside.

And this is what frees up the direction that World Robot Boxing has taken, having more in common with a demolition derby than a boxing match. And in fact a lot of the non-professional robot boxing matches take place at abandoned venues, county fairs, and rodeos, just like demolition derbies. And it’s at just this sort of event that we catch up with Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), who’s in a desperate place trying to pay off some debts fighting his robot against a bull.

It’s Charlie that the story is really about, rather than any robot. He used to be a boxer himself, although not really a great one. Still, he had a dogged determination that drove him to fight until either he or his opponent were face-down on the mat. We don’t really see any signs of alcoholism — Touchstone is a Disney subsidiary, after all — but Charlie has a similar reckless disregard for caution. At one point he’s asked if he ever thinks about what he does before he does it, which pretty much sums up how he keeps digging himself in deeper.

Charlie gets thrown for a loop, though, when his estranged eleven-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), lands squarely in his lap for a summer. He reluctantly takes the kid — a real WRB fan, it seems — along to a fight, where his latest robot is all but destroyed. Sneaking into a junkyard to steal parts, they stumble on an old sparring robot that’s designed to mimic fighting moves it sees, to take some serious abuse, and to keep coming back for more. Max adopts this small-but-powerful “Atom”, and wheedles Charlie into helping get into fighting shape.

Of course there’s plenty of bot-on-bot action. Much of it is computer-generated with motion capture techniques, but some animatronic robots were used as well, which probably has something to do with how real the robots seem. Atom, in particular, has a worn, gritty texture that really helps characterize him. Even the fancier robot fighters are made from steel and servos and wires, not magic shiny stuff that flies around in an obfuscating cloud to hide impossible shape changes.

But despite the focus on the robots, there’s a real human story in Real Steel, and bringing that out is all in how Jackman capably handles the script product by veteran sports screenwriter John Gatins, who has a cameo as “Kingpin”, another underground robot fighter. It may not be the most original story in the world, but it’s touching and unforced, which is more than can be said for a lot of fight movies trying to be something more than some guy alternatively waling on and getting waled on by some other guy.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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