The deal with Real Steel

Real Steel is not your average father and son movie, nor is it your typical sports movie where the underdog triumphs in the end. It pushes the envelope and injects futuristic elements into tried and tested formulas for mainstream movies and brings to life an uncanny story of a down on his luck ex-boxer, his estranged son, and a sparring bot, who serves as a link that brings their relationship together to make for a heartwarming family drama and a gut wrenching sports-oriented film featuring robot boxers.

In the year 2020, where men’s appetites have evolved to sports that are more brutal and action packed, athletes no longer have a role in major sports events like boxing and are replaced by robots that are created and developed to cater to their hunger for more blood. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a talented former boxer who has evolved with the times and now ekes out a living by pitting his robot boxer Ambush in seedy underground matches and state fairs. After losing a match and a substantial amount of money, he learns that his ex-girlfriend died and left him the custody of his son, 11 year-old Max (Dakota Goyo). Unwilling to take on the responsibility, Charlie willingly signs off Max to the care of his aunt Debra in exchange for cash, but lets Max tag along for the summer as a favor to Debra’s loaded husband Max, who wants to go to Europe with his wife. In one of their scavenging hunts in a junkyard, Max stumbles upon an old robot Atom, whom he develops a relationship with and trains (along with his father) to fight in the RBA (Robot Boxing Association).

When I first saw the trailer to this movie, I was awed by the clean graphics and the overall gist of the story. I was fully expecting it to be centered on the robots and Animatronix with the characters only providing support to the robots. However, from the opening billboard until the final credits, filmmakers managed to strike the perfect balance between humans and robots, drawing audiences into the story with excellent acting by the film’s main stars — Jackman as the jackass father who hides his inadequacies by going at life decisions half cocked, and Goyo as his son Max, who, on many ocassions, has shown a maturity that is far superior to his father yet still showing a tendency to be as stubborn and muleheaded as his old man. The film actually reminded me of Stallone movies Rocky and Over the Top but with updated characters and of course, gigantic and nitro pumped robots that dish out punishment 10,000 as hard as humans can. I appreciated that the story resolved the revelation of the sellout early into the story rather than drag it out towards the end where it will lead to further complications in the relationship between father and son.

Charlie (Jackman) tells Atom to shadow his movements during a fight while Max (Goyo) looks on.

Hugh Jackman is an excellent actor, no question about that. I loved his development from a certified douchebag to a reliable dad, and Goyo, whom audiences can probably remember as the boy who played the young Thor, shows true potential as he portrayed a smart and resilient boy who idolizes his father and gets under his skin simply by being himself. I loved the way Goyo gave life to Max, because he was very natural. Max was not shown as a fragile and overly angsty child with daddy issues like so many characters before him but rather as a kid who knew what he was in for, accepted it and did his best while he hung out with his old man. The kid is a natural. I see many great roles ahead of him. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s adorable. Evangeline Lilly as as the tough as nails yet vulnerable Bailey Tallet, Charlie’s number 1 supporter/love interest also gave justice to the role, striking off chemistry with both Charlie and Max. Developing a father and son relationship in the movies is tall order but developing their respective relationships with a robot, which is supposedly an emotionless object, and using him to link the characters together is absolute genius.

Credit should  go to screenwriter John Gatins for the well paced and witty dialogue, director Shawn Levy for his vision in catering to a wide array of audiences drawn to this feature, and for giving each character their own moments in the film. Levy also deserves a big kudos for not presenting the film in typical fashion, distributing the conflicts in various parts of the film to ensure that the pace does not become monotonous. Meanwhile, the artists are real superstars for working on the kick ass robots, the fluidity of their movements, and the seamless rendering; and the fight choreographers for the excellent excellent boxing matches, that give off the feel and tension of actual sports events. The design for Gen2 Atom was great, but it was eyes and the movements that lent to him a human like quality that simply begged audiences to root for him. Generally, the designs for all the robots showed their personality and I for one, appreciated that because it made viewers identify with them.

Charlie (Jackman) and Max (Goyo) take a break from training Atom.

The team meant business when they set out to do this movie. Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard was even tapped for this movie to serve as boxing consultant and Hugh Jackman’s speed and professional moves towards the end is mostly because of him.

A lot of big budget movies have relied on gimmick (which Real Steel also did in Comic Con), some rely on big stars (Hugh Jackman, duh!), but many have failed simply because they lose focus on developing the story and presenting it in a way that relates to the audience. Real Steel’s strength lies with the fact that it did not peg all its hopes on bravado but rather in ensuring that they had an excellent product ( I keep saying excellent in this blog) and that the audiences had fun watching the movie. Real Steel offers the complete package and it is now a contender in my list of best movies of 2011.