Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), a former boxer, desperately needs money after his expensive robots get destroyed during robot boxing matches. Upon the death of his ex-girlfriend, he reunites with his 11-year-old estranged son, Max (Dakota Goyo) at a custody hearing. Max’s aunt, Debra (Hope Davis), and uncle, Marvin (James Rebhorn), agree to have custody of Max, but because they’re going on vacation in Europe for the summer, they need Charlie to take care of him in the meantime. Unbeknownst to Debra, Charlie accepts a total payment of one hundred thousand dollars in exchange for the temporary custody. Charlie could use the money, and Marvin could use the vacation, so it appears to be a win-win situation.
Charlie reluctantly brings Max along with him in his truck to work where he introduces him to Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), his former girlfriend who now owns a boxing gym also serves as a location where he can work on his robot fighters. Their luck changes for the better when Max digs up a robot named Atom from a landfill, and he and Charlie work hard to train it to fight and win boxing matches. Not surprisingly, they bond as father-and-son throughout their struggles with Atom.
Real Steel is a clear-cut example of how a derivative, banal premise filled with clichés and cheesiness can still be consistently fun and rousing. The screenplay by John Gatins doesn’t have much in terms of realism, but, concurrently, it’s not expected to. At least it’s fundamentally grounded in a sliver of reality given the dynamics between Charlie and Max as father-and-son. What Real Steel does offer is plenty of exciting fight sequences between robots that provide a rush of adrenaline. You won’t find any of those scenes to be tedious, though, even though there are many fights to be found. Perhaps that lack of tedium is a testament to how truly engaging the film manages to be because of how it at least tries to invest some time developing its human characters, thereby allowing you to care about them—which is much more than can be found in most action films today.
Fortunately, director Shawn Levy keeps the pace moving along briskly and doesn’t resort to shaky camera movements during the fight scenes as a means of creating tension. You’ll be able to clearly follow what’s going on during those moments without experiencing nausea or confusion. It’s truly remarkable that child actor Dakota Goyo gives such an energetic, believable performance that leads him to outshine his adult stars during every scene that he’s in. One there’s for certain after watching him in Real Steel: he has a very bright future ahead of him in the acting world.
At a running time of 2 hours and 8 minutes, Real Steel is quite cheesy, yet exhilarating and mindlessly entertaining. It’s a fun, crowd-pleasing popcorn movie that will leave you hungry for a sequel.
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