For a long while, characters in Hollywood movies never seemed to talk about money. They just had enough of it. Unremarked-on prosperity is still the norm in some genres, such as the romantic comedy. But the recession has finally brought back films that acknowledge income gaps and incite audiences to cheer for the cash-strapped underdog, even as they present fantasy outcomes and sidestep politics. What better proof than Real Steel, director Shawn Levy’s reasonably successful attempt to recapture the fighting spirit of Rocky with CGI robots?
If I had to put money on one prediction for the next 10 or 20 years, it would be this: Assuming the necessary advances in robotics, robot boxing will be huge. Most cinematic visions of our near future are more intriguing than plausible, Blade Runner style. But the world depicted in Real Steel makes all too much sense, even as its plot is woven shamelessly from old-movie clichés.
In 2020, Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) drives his truck across a heartland landscape dotted with wind turbines, looking for fairs where he can lay wagers on his battered fighting robot. He used to be a boxer, but around 2014, we’re told, machines replaced humans in the ring, allowing the crowd to revel in “true, no-holds-barred violence” without guilt. Sounds like what computer graphics have done to movies in the past 10 years.
Jackman’s character is one of those impulse-driven ne’er-do-wells who are lovable in movies and nightmares for law enforcement and social-service agencies in real life. When Charlie is offered custody of his 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), from whose life he has been absent, he views his offspring primarily as a source of quick cash. But the kid wins Dad over when he reveals a more rational grasp of robot-boxing strategy than Charlie has yet displayed. Together, father and son groom and train a puny, outdated — yet unexpectedly skilled — humanoid machine rescued from the junkyard. Anyone who doesn’t know what transpires has never seen a boxing movie.
Real Steel is not The Fighter, but it earns cheers from the audience honestly. It takes place in imaginatively realized settings, ranging from that classic Americana fair to an underground fighting club full of Mad Max extras to a sleek mega-arena. Considering that the robots are CGI, the boxing feels surprisingly explosive and real; unlike the cartoonish battles in Transformers, it respects the laws of physics, more or less. Finally, the filmmakers have mercifully refrained from involving the robot, Atom, in toilet jokes or other Short Circuit-style anthropomorphic shenanigans. He retains his robotic dignity.
What the filmmakers didn’t refrain from was blatant pandering to the kid audience. Goyo isn’t quite up to his role — understandably, since it calls for him to be precocious, nerdy, exuberant and adorable, as well as to deliver tongue-twisting technical dialogue. Though his dances with Atom (they do the Robot, of course) are among the movie’s high points, it’s hard not to wonder what one of the more convincingly worldly-wise young actors from Super 8 would have done with this part.
While there’s nothing revolutionary about this film on any level, it’s still nice to see Hollywood acknowledge that someone’s struggling to make a living out there. When Max is asked whether Atom should be called the “people’s champion,” he embraces the title. Signs of robust populism in a robot boxing movie, or just more pandering to ticket buyers who like watching virtual hunks of metal get smashed? You be the judge.