Rock’em Sock’em robots. Director Shawn Levy brings everyone’s favorite quick draw plastic pugilists to the big screen in Real Steel. It’s a world in which remote controlled robots have replaced humans in the ring and every computer is an HP. It’s sort of like Rocky, except that Optimus Prime plays Balboa and nobody cares what happens to him because he can’t throw a goddamn punch.
Charlie Kanton (Hugh Jackman) is an ex-boxer who is down on his luck. He fights old junkyard bots in county fairs and in lowlife hangouts full of angry, middle-aged white men in leather (it’s puzzling that they are dressed this way, but it is the future). Kanton drinks, swaggers, struggles with debt and has perfectly maintained stubble. But not much else. Jackman’s acting is, like Charlie’s character, uninspired.
Charlie gets a surprise when he receives word that his son’s mother is dead. Custody comedy ensues. He wants nothing to do with 11-year-old Max, played by the blue-eyed, blond-haired Dakota Goya. So Charlie makes the hard decision to sell his son for $100,000 to Max’s aunt. But wait! Max’s aunt and uncle are taking a summer trip to Italy, so it looks like Charlie will have to keep Max for the summer.
The rest of the show is packed with clichés. Max is the tech savvy video game junkie and robot boxing enthusiast. His heart of gold and childlike innocence enable him to take a scrappy, blue-eyed robot named Atom from the junkyard to the big leagues, where Atom will fight the mammoth Zeus. And maybe, just maybe, if Charlie can only learn to believe again, they can win that fight.
While the film’s plot and morals may be predictable, it does try to explore the dehumanizing effect that technology can have. Zeus, the black and green-eyed opponent bot, is owned by the young genius Tak Moshido (Karl Yune) and the voluptuous Russian Farra Lemcova (Olga Fonda). For them the robot is just a machine to be perfected . Zeus is cold and inhuman, much like his owners. Moshido and Lemcova are portrayed as rich elitists who don’t care about the people.
Max, the beautiful Aryan child, treats Atom like a person. Max plays and dances with Atom; he even gives Atom a bro fist. They listen to rap and drink Dr. Pepper (who rules the world with HP). It’s cute, I guess. Whatever. They listen to rap and drink Dr. Pepper (who rules the world with HP). But Atom, our lovable, blue-eyed bot, is not really that lovable. Max may treat him like a human but it’s never clear that he actually is human in any way. Like many of the relationships in the film the whole situation feels superficial.
You know which robot I sympathized with? The Iron Giant. He was one of the rare characters who acted human and he was surrounded by human characters. In Reel Steel, it’s always too clear that everyone is only filling a role dictated by the formalistic plot.
But hey, this is a Hollywood blockbuster, so who cares! We can still expect a bone-crunching, er, steel-bending good time, right? Just like Transformers, but without without the guns. Or Raging Bull with no limits. Rock’em Sock’em Robots brought to life right before our very eyes! Yes? YES? Not quite. For a sport that’s supposed to have started from society’s demand for an increasingly violent sport, it all looks pretty tame. Sure, a few roboarms are ripped off in the underground fighting rings, but it’s never as spectacular as it could be. The robots’ punches lack the satisfying crunch I’ve come to expect of well-produced robot pummeling. I don’t think anyone with an appreciation of real, human boxing could think much of those bouts. It’s all too dull and stilted. Admittedly, it was pretty neat when the Caesar-bot decapitated the Asian-bot early in the film.
The film’s worse fault is probably that it doesn’t take its own advice. It asks us to be human in the face of technology. But the acting can be pretty robotic. The script may well have come off an assembly line. The film criticizes the spectacle, the worship of Zeus and the violence of the inhuman robots. On the other hand, the movie itself is a spectacle, and an unimpressive one at that. It’s like eating bacon while watching Shawn Levy eat bacon and tell you that it’s probably bad to eat bacon. And he even burnt the bacon.