When the first trailers for “Real Steel” came out, all I could think is “Oh no, someone’s made ‘Rock-em, Sock-em Robots: The Movie.’” I saw it as yet another example of the decline and fall of western civilization, along the lines of the upcoming Battleship movie (no, I’m not kidding — it’s scheduled for release next May) and the fact that someone is actually writing a script for a Farmville movie (the fellows who wrote “Toy Story,” reportedly).
As it turns out, though, “Real Steel” is the kind of warm, family-friendly, richly satisfying movie that gives you plenty of opportunities to cheer and leaves you choked up at just the right moment. Yes, there are still fighting robots, but the real story here is about a man re-discovering his own value and faith in himself, a father and son who are complete strangers finding how much they really love each other, and the wonderous joy of a boy discovering a wonderous bond with a new friend.
Of course, to care about the win you’ve got to get through some losing first. The movie starts with Jackman’s character, Charlie Kenton, at the bottom of the reject pile, and Jackman manages to portray a convincing enough jerk and “bad bet” to make sure the audience believes it without pushing us over into actual dislike. He’s got to earn his redemption, but we believe it when it comes.
Evangeline Lilly is the woman who can’t quite make herself give up on him, and the actress imbues the character with both an earthy, no-nonsense practicality and flashes of the soft heart that still dreams for Charlie even when Kenton himself no longer can.
The robot fighting is explained as an extension of the audience’s need for violence, with real boxers and MMA fighters eventually replaced by controlled robots who can utterly destroy each other (though if the controllers are right, there are still plenty of sports movie-style opportunities for nail-biting and wild cheering).
Charlie, a former fighter, can’t seem to translate his instinctive knowledge of the sport into the pre-programmed commands that run the robots, and the people who dominate the sport now are closer to electronics moguls and video game fanatics than actual fighters.
That doesn’t stop Max Kenton, however, from loving the sport. Charlie’s highly estranged son — he hasn’t seen his father since he was born — Max forcibly invites himself on a summer-long cross country road trip with his father to get closer to the robots and avoid being shuttled aside one more time.
Dakota Goyo manages to make Max both angry and stubborn without falling into the common kid-actor trap of turning the character into a little twerp, and gives Max’s gentle explorations with his new robot a sense of wonder that makes the entire movie glow just a little bit brighter. (“Boy and his Robot” movies are the sci-fi version of “Boy and his Dog” movies, with all of the heartwarming goodness and fewer chances of “Old Yeller”-style endings.) Goyo and Jackman evolve their character’s relationship slowly but believably, and you can almost count the barriers that had been between them as they fall, one at a time.
This is an emotional movie rather than a sci-fi one, and though there are some hints that Max’s robot, Atom, is more than it seems, they’re never really addressed beyond what Charlie and Max need to understand (not that we geeks won’t develop our own theories - if anyone sees the movie and wants to talk, I’m more than happy to have an e-mail discussion). Despite the title, “Real Steel” really belongs to the wonderfully human people whose story it tells.
I guess western civilization isn’t doing so bad, after all.