You can lead a robot to boxing, but you can’t make him dance
It would make my job a lot easier if Real Steel was as dumb and hilarious as it first sounded, when director Shawn Levy said of it:
“In a movie filled with these mechanical warriors, at its core ‘Real Steel’ is an incredibly human story.”
The brilliantly absurd unintentional satire of that aside, what Levy apparently meant was, “Real Steel is Over the Top with robot boxing instead of arm wrestling.”
The amazing thing is that for about 20 minutes, Levy almost convinced me that what I just typed might actually be a brilliant premise. We open on Hugh Jackman, a broken-down old robot boxing trainer (and former regular boxer) who owes money all over town. He’s taken to sticking his robots in freakshow exhibition matches, like the first of the film, pitting his robot against a 2,000-pound bull. “We agreed on an 800-pound bull!” Jackman yells.
Of course, as we all know, it’s not the size of the bull in the robot fight, it’s the size of the fight in the robot that fights the bull. (I think?) The bull turns out to be owned by bad guy Kevin Durand at a county fair in San Leandro — a suburb of Oakland, which looks strangely like Texas in the future. One of many confusing narrative choices.
However, what you notice about Levy’s direction, aside from some of casually retarded story choices, is that he has a real talent for visuals. The opening tracking shots of Hugh Jackman driving around in his robot truck are gorgeous, and when the fights start, Levy shoots them without shaky-cam or quick cuts, and with actual spatial awareness, something Michael Bay abandoned long ago in favor of explosions and sluts and exploding sluts. I actually might’ve enjoyed Transformers if it had been shot like this. I guess what I’m saying is, if your movie is about robots that box, show us the robots boxing, you know?
Another thing Real Steel has going for it is that Hugh Jackman’s character is kind of a prick. In Over the Top, Stallone came off as a slow-witted goon who’d do anything for his estranged effeminate child, Mike Hawk (seriously, that was the kid’s name. insert your own Freudian subtext there). To its credit, Real Steel depicts Jackman as a shameless deadbeat who never wanted to be a father, who happily agrees to sign over custody of the 11-year-old he sired with some faceless, now-dead slutty ex, in exchange for a cash sum paid by her surviving brother-in-law, a preposterously cliché cartoon of a rich guy played by James Rebhorn in, I sh*t you not, a f*cking ascot. Hey, why not a top hat and monocle? Point being, Jackman actually tries to sell his child. That was a nice surprise. When the child shows up (Dakota Goyo, looking like thinner Jake Lloyd from Episode I), he turns out to be kind of a prick too (chip off the ol’ block, and all of that). Neither are maudlin objects of pity, which, in a movie this otherwise hacky, is at least… something.