Charlie (Hugh Jackman) is a loser, a has-been boxer who never was. In Real Steel, set in the not-too-distant future of 2020, boxing has changed - robots have replaced humans in the matches, so that they can become even more violent, and Charlie is leading a hard-scrabble life of trying to get bouts for his robot at sixth-rate venues like state fairs and underground arenas.
Real Steel shouldn't be as entertaining as it is. There is a nod in the credits to a Richard Matheson story, "Steel," as being an inspiration for the film, but anyone can see from the previews that it is a live-action version of the '60s toy, Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. Strangely, that ends up being a good thing. For the same reason that the old TV commercial for the toy is indelibly etched in so many of our minds, there is a bit of a nostalgic thrill whenever the robots appear in the movie. You could never get me to see a Transformers film, but my 7-year old was able to persuade me to see Real Steel. Maybe Hugh Jackman had something to do with getting me to the theater, too.
Charlie left his girlfriend 11 years ago, relinquishing all rights to their son, Max. The mother has now died and Charlie has made a deal with Max's aunt and her rich husband that he will watch him — just for the summer — for a fee — and then surrender custody. Real Steel borrows heavily from many classic boxing movies like Rocky and The Champ. It's also got the "boy and his dog" appeal of a film like ET (Steven Spielberg is an executive producer of Real Steel) and of course, The Iron Giant. The places where Charlie and his son Max (Dakota Goyo) take Atom to fight have a Mad Max/Thunderdome feel about them. Kids won't really get how far down through 2020's social stratas Charlie keeps descending, and how Max and Atom help him back up, step by step, but their parents and chaperones will. Real Steel keeps Charlie gritty and grimy. Its twin protagonists, Charlie and Atom, must crawl up through the mud — sometimes literally.
All the scenes with the robots and Charlie and Max are great. The combinations of real robots and animated ones are seamless. As Jackman has been quoted, "It's amazing that in this world where I'm used to a green screen and a stick with a tennis ball on it [to give an actor a visual target of where a CGI element will be inserted later] that Spielberg actually said to Shawn [Levy, the director], 'You should really have real elements where you can.' ... Basically, if they're not walking or fighting, that's a real robot." Sugar Ray Leonard is also credited as an advisor to the fighting sequences, which helps with the feeling of authenticity.
Real Steel features a subplot of the estranged father and son getting to know one another. The movie doesn't tie up all the emotional loose ends in the tidy, unrealistic knot of Charlie embracing fatherhood, but we do feel that Max will get to spend some more time with Charlie and Atom in the future, after their summer adventure.
For the most part, Real Steel is just a lot of fun. Jackman is always physically impressive, but he has some nice, quieter scenes with both Max and his current on-off girlfriend, played by Evangeline Lilly. There are some over-the-top annoying product placements, but they are amusingly presented — after we watch Max guzzle prominently placed can after can of Dr. Pepper, Charlie scowls and criticizes the kid, who is bouncing off the walls from the caffeine — "You drank all that soda?" There's something very real about Charlie and Atom and Real Steel that keeps it appealing.