As I first watched the trailers for this film, I could just imagine a Hollywood pitch meeting taking place in a table at Spagos or The Brown Derby or somesuch local. During a power lunch wherein a small appetizer could cost as much as an average person's daily salary, someone says in eureka fashion: "How about 'Rock 'em, Sock 'em Robots' meets 'Rocky'"? "That's a brilliant idea," chimes a producer, "let's go for it! (in a cheeky bit of faux cleverness in reference to 'Rocky V')". And yes, "Real Steel", directed by Shawn Levy (the "Night at the Museum" films) and produced by the likes of Levy, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemekis (among others) as a Dreamworks/Disney collaboration, does heavily crib from both concepts but, instead of feeling like a rehash of what has been seen before, seems fresher than it should. This is due to a combination of the screenwriting talents of John Gatin with story by Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven (based on a story by Richard Matheson [I Am Legend]) and the cast, headed by Hugh Jackman ("X-Men Origins: Wolverine", "The Prestige") and Dakota Goyo ("Thor").
It's an underdog story. Boxing with robots has supplanted human boxing as the dominant sport sometime in the relatively near future. The story heavily homages (or is that "steals from"?) the first Rocky film in many ways, and in one key sequence virtually (literally and figuratively) recreates classic choreography (according to IMDB, "Rocky IV"). Charlie Kenton (Jackman) is a once promising boxer now down on his luck robot boxing participant who is constantly on the run, whether to find a new robot to bring him back on top, evade the many creditors who hound him, relationships with women, or himself. In the midst of this, circumstances bring him into an unwanted contact with his born out of wedlock son, eleven year old Max (Goyo), who harbors deep resentment towards his absentee father. Things change when Max discovers a discarded sparring bot (named "Atom", a symbolic name due to his stature compared to other fighting bots in the film as well as its underdog status). Both father and son engage in a journey to find common ground as they work the boxing circuit to find legitimacy and validation both within and outside the ring.
The actors deliver powerful performances. In the hands of other actors, absentee father Charlie could have come across as despicably deplorable. However, it's Jackman's innate nature that keeps the audience's sympathy (which may actually be counter productive to the character development, as the further "into the moral depths" a character falls, the greater the redemption if achieved). He brings an everyman's sensibility and carries the weight of failed hopes and dreams well, though mixed with a hopeful, never give up tenacity even when he knows his plans won't work. He's all bluster and hype in front of others, but he evinces a vulnerability that lets the audience know its all an act.
However good Jackman is, his considerable star power does not soley carry the film. In fact, the majority of the burden falls upon young Goyo as his illegitimate son, Max. Last seen in Kenneth Branagh's "Thor", Goyo has much more screen time and makes the most of it. By now, the know it all, more mature than the adult child is an exasperating cliché; most of the time portayed by youngsters who are equally as exasperating. However, Goyo straddles the line between precociousness and annoyance naturally because he plays the role as a boy, not an adult in a child's body. Thus he keeps the audience sympathy all throughout the film; no mean feat. Arguably, if this role was miscast the film would fall apart. This is not to say that the supporting players, such as Evangeline Lilly ("Lost") as Bailey Tallet, the daughter of Charlie's boxing trainer, current owner of the family gym and implied previous love interest, Hope Davis ("About Schmidt") as Max's aunt Debra who seeks sole custody of him, the ever-reliable James Rebhorn ("Scotland, PA", "The Talented Mr. Ripley"), as Marvin, Debra's milquetoast but affluent husband, Karl Yune ("Memoirs of a Geisha"), who plays creator of ultimate battle bot "Zeus" (read "Apollo" Creed from "Rocky"), and Kevin Durand ("Lost", "X-Men Origins: Wolverine") who plays an ex-boxer who had defeated Charlie in the past and to whom Charlie owes money, are in any way deficient. Their performances help build up and support the main conflicts, truly making this film an ensemble piece. However, the linchpin is the relationship and chemistry between Jackman and Goyo. One believes that their characters are father and son (and cut from the same mold) and Goyo allows for subtle nuances in Jackman's character in terms of the latter's development (a prime example of this involves a slight running gag involving hamburgers). They are the heart and soul of the film, thus keeping it from becoming a faux Transformers.
And speaking of Transformers, Michael Bay should go back to school and take a course in "Robot Filmmaking 101", with "Real Steel" being the required curriculum. After all, one of the main problems with the big screen "Transformers" is that both the Autobots and Deceptacons looked virtually interchangeable with some minor exceptions (Optimus Prime being one); just a mass of whirling gears and cogs held together by virtually indistinguishable exoskeletons. In this film, each robot has its own unique form with a personality somewhat reflective of that form. The crowning jewel here is Atom itself. All the robots are a combination of CGI and actual robots, so it is a credit to the special effects team and puppeteers that we have a rare instance of the CGIGumby" Hulk), have lacked; including Transformers. To say more about Atom itself would give away a major spoiler that was left somewhat underdeveloped, but suffice it to say the audience comes to care about the robot's fate as much as the human actors whose care it is in.
The direction by Levy is tight, as is the editing by Dean Zimmerman. There are very few spots that lag on longer than they're supposed to. Levy keeps the performances rooted in reality without going over the top in some cases. Further, he builds up the storytelling and the stakes and hits the appropriate beats to build to a satisfying crescendos and conclusions. In the theater I went to, through two climatic fight sequences, despite the fact that on an intellectual level everyone knew they were watching a CGI display, the actions, emotions and stakes were so high that when the fights came to their respective conclusions the audience reacted, clapped and cheered as though this were a real time event; something that was absent from all the Rocky forays since its first sequel (perhaps having much to do with the fact that, in many instances, the fights were choreographed by boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard) or any other underdog fighting film, for that matter. The film's score was by Danny Elfman, who yet again reaches out from his quirky comfort zone and produces a score reminiscent of the more traditional, feel good scoring efforts of the 1980s by frequent Spielberg and Zemekis collaborators John Williams and Alan Silvestri. Elfman's score, while not particularly cohesive in terms of its themes, does give the film its own distinct identity while recalling the types of scores from a bygone era.
This feels more like a film that should have been a summer release; perhaps the producers felt that it would have been lost admist that season's other sci-fi release. They needn't have worried. PG-13 for its violence and language, this film comes closer to being a family film without being excessively cloying. It's a fun film full of pathos, action, and humor with themes of rapprochement and redemption. Its more than robots beating each other. Its about emotional distances being closed and finding the courage to continue fighting even when the fight is all but lost. The best sci-fi is rooted in relatable human drama, and this film should be counted among the best. In terms of its entertainment value as well as the messages it conveys and bang for the box office buck, "Real Steel" is the real deal.