As soon as the first of many electrifying robot battles in “Real Steal” went underway, I found myself instinctively recalling old memories that I didn’t know I still had. I remember how I used set aside furniture in the living room to create space for an arena. I would gather my toys in that arena, and our gang would have some fun. I thrashed them all around, pounded them against each other, and flung them against the ruthless ceiling. Things would be cooler if my stuff could do more than just withstand nonstop hammering, but it was a restriction that my imagination couldn’t handle.
“Real Steel” is the giant robot action movie my inner child has been waiting for. It demonstrates deep affection for its robots by investing in aesthetic qualities that similar movies are indifferent to. Each machine is skillfully designed. All the robots enjoy such a specific shape, physique, color and theme that we can identify any of them upon sight. And because professional boxers were motion-captured to generate the mechanical fights we see on screen, the movements between these visually appealing robots are authentic and in harmony. Here is a good example of a special effects movie that doesn’t depend on computers to do all the work.
The world in “Real Steel” has reached a time where man is no longer permitted to box. The roars of the crowd appear to like the replacement of human fighters: huge, towering robots that are assembled to disassemble their challengers through brute force. Robot boxing has become so popular a sport that we see it being held in vacant alleys, dark warehouses, and luxurious stadiums. This is the kind of sport that I would prefer to watch from afar. You do not want to be in the front row, uninsured, when one of those massive robots gets tossed out of the ring.
So the renewed sport has proved to be profitable, except for people like Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), one of probably many boxers who ended up broke. Now Charlie himself has taken a shot at the sport, but his lack of funds and experience is not helping him. “Real Steel” is the blending of the Underdog Story and the Robot Action Movie. Try to imagine Rocky Balboa outside the ring while he gives commands of combat to The Terminator. The action sequences in “Real Steel” are exciting because we are given the rare opportunity to cherish them. The robots brawl two at a time in the contained space of a boxing ring, achieving a level of control and comprehension that’s beyond the ADHD disability of Michael Bay and his defenders.
An element in the movie that might have been overdone is its attempt to maximize human drama by giving Charlie an 11-year-old son he didn’t know of until now. Their relationship is diligently developed, which gives significance to the robot fights. But even though the father-son relationship needlessly stretches the film to a long 127 minutes, I stay true to the thought that cheesy characters are better than no characters at all.
“Real Steel” is based on the highly-acclaimed 1956 short story, “Steel”, by Richard Matheson. I’ve read that the source material has a more serious, thoughtful approach to the struggling boxer who has been cast out by machines. The movie adaptation has converted the original story into a more common premise, because the more familiar a story is to the public, the more likely they are going to see it. Sad, but that’s just the way things are.
Numerous fans of the original Matheson piece are afraid that the shallow, but nonetheless fun, movie version will hurt the reputation of “Steel”. I don’t believe that this is the case. Any publicity that will cause a broader awareness to “Steel” is good publicity. Oscar Wilde makes a good point when he said: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”