Review: ‘Real Steel’ is great family fun, even without the robots

I think it’s safe to say I have not been kind to the work of Shawn Levy in print so far.

“Big Fat Liar.”  “Just Married.”  “Cheaper By The Dozen.”  “The Pink Panther.”  Both of the “Night At The Museum” films.  That’s a painful list.  But it’s also a list of films that managed to do well at the box-office, well enough in some cases to see Levy climb onto the A-list.  He’s the sort of filmmaker executives love, good with the talent, able to work within a budget, and he makes films that make money.  It should come as no surprise, then, that when Amblin’ and producers Don Murphy and Susan Montford went looking for a director for “Real Steel,” Levy would be one of the names on their list.

What is a surprise to me is how well Levy seems to have done at making a genuine mid-’80s Amblin’ movie.  I know we heard a lot of talk about how “Super 8” was the Spielberg fetish film this year, and certainly that movie indulged a lot of stylistic touches that were designed to evoke that Amblin’ feeling.   I’d say it’s proof that you’re as strong as the actual script you shoot, and John Gatins has taken a whole lot of familiar and done something special with it, something that Levy benefits from as much as he does from a game and able cast.

With “Real Steel,” though, the whole film perfectly plays to what Amblin’ always seemed to be chasing, family films built on high concepts that could play for families across the board.  This film, based loosely on a short story by Richard Matheson that was adapted into an episode of the original “Twilight Zone,” is a nice example of what happens when you follow a formula exactly right.  There’s nothing about “Real Steel” that I would call challenging or new, particularly, but it is efficiently told and energetically played, and Hugh Jackman and Dakota Goyo, who plays his son, have fantastic chemistry, a must if this is going to work at all.

Charlie Kenton (Jackman) used to be a boxer, back in the days before the sport was banned.  Charlie was good, too, but that doesn’t matter anymore.  All that matters these days is robot boxing, and Charlie makes his living on the fringes of the sport, buying used robots and operating them in low-level underground matches until they break down.  Then one day, a couple of guys show up to tell Charlie that his ex-girlfriend is dead and the little boy they had together, Max, is now ten years old and needs a place to stay.  Max’s aunt (Hope Davis) and her husband (James Rebhorn) are wealthy, and they’d love to take in Max, and Charlie wants nothing to do with the kid.  All he sees is an opportunity, so he charges Rebhorn $100,000 and agrees to keep Max for the summer until their vacation is done.  During their uneasy forced road trip, Charlie and Max bond over a love of robot boxing, and they eventually find a beat-up old sparring robot named Atom who they restore and start fighting as a team.

Simple stuff, and you can probably imagine half the beats in the film just based on that synopsis.  But “Real Steel” gets the tone just right, and it also does a great job with the robots, which is pretty essential if you’re making a movie about robot boxing.  I like that they decided not to let the robots speak and not to give them personalities.  They’re just machines in the film.  They are well-realized by a combination of CGI and on-set effects from The Legacy Studios and John Rosengrant.

The emphasis is decidedly on the human characters and what they’re going through.  Charlie’s got a lady in his life, but she’s the daughter of his ex-trainer, and they’re barely talking.  Bailey (Evangeline Lilly) believes in Charlie, but she also feels like he’s given up.  It’s only once she sees him with Max that she begins to believe that the man she loved might still be in there somewhere.  Their relationship and the budding father/son dynamic is what makes most of the running time.  The robots are in the movie, but more as background against which the drama plays out.

There are some familiar sports movie beats as well as some familiar family drama beats, but “Real Steel” is out to entertain from the very start, and it does so without the desperate noisy quality that makes it so hard for me to sit through the “Night At The Museum” films.  I never felt like “Real Steel” was straining.  It’s relaxed, casually assured, and just plain well-made.  It definitely feels like it’s aimed squarely at a younger audience, and I intend to take both of my sons back to see it.  Nicely scored by Danny Elfman and nicely photographed by Mauro Fiore, I think it’ll play even better for them than it did for me, but for now, I can finally say that I enjoyed a Shawn Levy film, and that it was nice to be totally surprised by a big-budget movie. 

“Real Steel” opens everywhere October 7, 2011.