Sometimes you just feel like watching something really, really stupid.
And let me tell you, folks, Real Steel fits that bill. I mean, it’s no so-bad-it’s-good cult classic like The Room or anything. Its mainstream status ensures that not enough risks were taken for it to be entertainingly awful or unintentionally good. And its multiple homages (read: rip-offs) of other fighting movies, most prominently Rocky, let you know exactly how things are going to turn out.
Rather than being a movie version of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots like I swore it must be, Real Steel is actually based on a short story “Steel” by none other than Richard Matheson, who has written a number of easily-recognizable sci-fi/fantasy novels (and movie adaptations) like The Omega Man, What Dreams May Come, and I Am Legend. The short story was actually adapted first into a Twilight Zone episode starring Lee Marvin.
The original story features Tim “Steel” Kelly and his out-of-date humanoid robot fighter named “Battling Mayo.” Unfortunately, Mayo breaks down just before the fight, and a desperate Steel decides he must disguise himself and step into the ring to battle the opposing robot. Steel manages only to survive the bout, doing absolutely no damage to the robot fighter and showing that while humans certainly have spunk, they were not meant to punch a half-ton of metal. Think of it as the exact opposite of the legend of John Henry.
Real Steel manages to carefully avoid any such nuance or thoughtfulness, launching its wildly unlikable protagonist, Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) and his boxing-bot into a fight with a real-live bull. Charlie Kenton is a down-on-his-luck former pro boxer forced to engage in robot fights to make ends meet, and doesn’t make them meet very well at all. The bull trashes his robot, and he’s forced to flee before the guy he owes money to catches up with him.
Somewhere in all of that, we learn that Charlie has an equally-unlikable son that gets dumped on him when an ex-girlfriend dies. 11-year-old Max is precocious, stubborn, and ultimately insufferable. Charlie’s childhood friend/love interest, played by Evangeline Lilly, is there simply to be a soft, female presence in a film about big dumb robots and their dumber handlers.
Eventually, Charlie and Max stumble across an obsolete sparring bot and Max – with the kind of leap of logic only an 11-year-old can make – believes this bot can take on the world of robot boxing. And, of course, after the appropriate amount of “setbacks,” it does. They get an unlikely shot at the title against the super-advanced Zeus and end up losing only by decision. Which is, of course, the plot of Rocky.
In the process, Charlie and Max decide that while they are both potential sociopaths, they are sociopaths well-suited to each other. This is, of course, after Charlie essentially sells Max to his aunt and uncle, feeds him little more than Red Bulls and burritos, leaves him in a junkyard at night, gets them both beaten up and robbed, and constantly reminding the child that his dreams are stupid. How Evangeline Lilly’s character fits into all this is pretty murky, but I can only imagine her 10 years from the end of the movie, in a cage in some dark basement, praying for the sweet kiss of a robot fist to deliver her to oblivion and away from the un-tender affections of the Kenton Boys.
The robot fights are pretty good, if you’re into that sort of thing. The special effects were nominated for an Academy Award, which is far closer to an Oscar than Real Steel should ever have reached. Animal cruelty aside, I actually enjoyed the fight against the bull, largely because it seems like the stupid sort of thing we’d really do if we could make advanced robots…we’d have them punch animals in the face.
And if you enjoy being punched in the face like an animal, you will enjoy Real Steel, a movie remarkable only because of its relentless mediocrity.