Real Steel – the new sci-fi sports flick from Night at the Museum director Shawn Levy – is set in the year 2020. Its vision of the future looks remarkably similar to the present save for the fact that the sport of boxing has been taken over by pugilistic robots. There are no robot butlers taxi drivers or senators – just boxers. Apparently technology in 2020 has advanced enough to allow for the creation of massive mechanized beings of astonishing dexterity but humanity has found no use for them beyond the boxing ring.
Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton a has-been boxer turned small-time robot-fight promoter. A consummate hustler who’ll do anything for a buck Charlie’s fallen on hard times of late. Opportunity arrives in the diminutive guise of 11-year-old Max (Dakota Goyo) his estranged son who turns out to be something of an electronics wunderkind. Together they work to fashion Atom an obsolete ramshackle “sparring robot” left to rot in a junkyard into a contender.
Anyone who’s seen an underdog sports movie – or any movie for that matter – made in the last half-century can fairly easily ascertain how this one plays out. (The story borrows tropes from The Champ Rocky and Over the Top wholesale.) Atom proves surprisingly capable in the ring compensating for his inferior technology with grit perseverance and an ability to absorb massive amounts of punishment. Under the guidance of Charlie and Max he makes an improbable run through the ranks eventually earning a one-in-a-million shot at the World Robot Boxing championship.
Real Steel was executive-produced by Steven Spielberg; it bears his unmistakable imprint. Levy judiciously deploys Spielberg’s patented blockbuster mix of dazzling special effects and gooey sentiment wrapping it all in a highly polished if wholly synthetic package. Still Real Steel might have amounted to so much glossy hokum were it not for its champion Hugh Jackman. Other actors might eye such a project as an opportunity to coast for an easy paycheck but damned if Jackman isn’t completely invested. The film’s underdog storyline isn’t nearly as inspiring as watching its star so gamely devote himself to selling material that will strike anyone over the age of 12 as patently ludicrous. His efforts pay off handsomely: Real Steel is about as rousing and affecting as any film inspired by Rock’em Sock’em Robots can expect to be. (The filmmakers claim lineage to a short story-turned-Twilight Zone episode but who are they kidding?)
Rainn Wilson trades one Office job for another as Robert “Fish” Fishman an over-the-hill 41 year-old insurance company worker who came right to the edge of eternal rock fame as the drummer of a struggling ‘80s band Vesuvius--until the other members kicked him out in order to get a record deal. Twenty years later the band has continued on to great success while Fish only manages to get fired from his latest job forcing him to move in with his sister (Jane Lynch) and family--including his nephew the nerdy Matt (Josh Gad) who happens to be a member of his own band A.D.D. Turns out the group needs a drummer and asks the long-in-the-tooth Uncle Robert to join them which he does reluctantly. Soon he is putting a soulful metal spin on their forgettable sound. The other members--Amelia (Emma Stone) and Curtis (Teddy Geiger)--aren’t too thrilled especially when he eventually makes a play for Curtis’ mom (Christina Applegate). But when he is caught rehearsing with the band in the nude (via a four-way webcam) the video finds itself on You Tube where A.D.D. suddenly becomes an exploitable phenom with the “naked drummer” as a draw. The inevitable tour leads to a climactic concert where revenge could be sweet when they share the bill with none other than--drumroll please--Vesuvius. Since Jack Black was apparently otherwise engaged Wilson gets a lucky break and turns what could be an annoying one-dimensional boob into a guy we can root for. He’s never less than believable as this aging buffoon who gets a second chance at the dream he always knew he deserved but blew 20 years earlier. Wilson playing a role not too dissimilar from his weekly gig as Dwight Schrute on The Office nicely balances the broad comedic requirements of the role with genuine pathos and a pretty good musical talent that makes the second coming of this 40-ish rock star oddly credible. It helps that he’s surrounded by an appealing cast of younger actors who make up the rest of the band. Stone (Superbad The House Bunny) is particularly appealing and completely winning. Geiger is the good-looking tortured lead singer while Gad makes us feel all the growing pains. Applegate is well cast but underused as Curtis’ mom and there are some nice--if too brief--moments from Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Jeff Garlin and the always hilarious Jane Lynch as Matt’s parents. Turning up for an ironic cameo is the original ousted drummer from The Beatles Pete Best (although the filmmakers swear this is not his story). Vesuvius is made up of comedy vets Fred Armisen Bradley Cooper and Will Arnett. but they are no Spinal Tap. Director Peter Cattaneo won universal praise and an Oscar nomination for his sleeper comedy hit The Full Monty and he’s probably got sleeper on his hand as he treads similar ground with the rags to riches scenario. He expertly displays how show business success can still come at a late age but not TOO late. Cattaneo wisely focuses on the humanistic qualities of the story blending some nice character work with the broader aspects of this School of Rock-style outing. It all could have gone south very quickly but the director keeps his cast in check and makes the story one that doesn’t ever run out of gas. This is the rare flick that both teens AND their parents will find riotously entertaining for wildly different reasons.