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?)
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Like hundreds of others in the mad-for-baseball Dominican Republic Miguel Santos (aka Sugar) struggles to try to make it in the local major leagues which would help pull his family out of poverty. His big break comes when U.S. scouts transfer the pitcher to a minor league team in Iowa giving him the opportunity to succeed in America. But when his game goes bad on the mound and an injury occurs he must decide what he really wants to become.
WHO’S IN IT?
Writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) spent months scouting teams in the Dominican Republic to find a ball player capable of acting the leading role finally settling on Algenis Perez Soto who had never been in front of a movie camera. He’s authentic and mesmerizing to watch as Sugar — his performance owing a great deal to his own similar background. He nails it and is completely convincing as a pitcher even though he wasn’t initially comfortable on the mound (his own position was really second base). Many of the other roles are also cast with amateur actors adding to the realistic tone of the film.
Boden and Nelson clearly show the love they have for the game but their film is really a striking document of the immigrant’s journey reminiscent in many ways of Elia Kazan’s Oscar nominated America America (1963). We usually only hear about the superstar players but these filmmakers put the emphasis on the great majority that never make it past the minors.
Many scenes are long and drawn out but despite the fact that the film could have used some tighter editing (particularly in the baseball segments) there is still a nice rhythm established.
Due to its desire to be as authentic as possible much of the film is not in English; so those who don’t like to read subtitles might be advised to steer clear.