Real Steel comes from the same studio as the Transformers films, and it's clearly intended to hit the same sweet spot of computer-generated effects, fucked-up action and goofy fun.
But it's a much, much smaller movie, that doesn't have seventeen protagonists and the entire U.S. Armed Forces as extras — and unlike the last two Transformers movies, Real Steel actually manages to be fun, and worth cheering for. Spoilers ahead...
I liked the first Transformers movie a lot, although I haven't seen it since it came out. It wasn't exactly a Kurosawa movie, but it was a goofy fun ride with robots trashing a city and each other. And at the center of the first Transformers was the story of a boy and his robot, as Sam Witwicky meets and bonds with Bumblebee the cute car-bot. I'm a sucker for a story about a young person and a robot being friends, ever since I read Ted Hughes' The Iron Giant as a kid.
And that same story is at the heart of Real Steel, despite all you've heard about it just being Rocky with robots substituted for Sylvester Stallone. (As if you'd be able to tell the difference.) Rather, a lot of the story is about a boy whose father lets him down again and again, until he bonds with a beautiful fighting robot, that he brings back to life, and which in turn redeems his father.
Yes, it's a Steven Spielberg-produced film, which means there's sentimentality, daddy issues, and — spoiler alert! — a happy ending. What did you expect? This time around, though, it actually works, and the film delivers a real emotional impact along with its robot-on-robot violence.
(And there seems to have been some deft editing — I noticed that some of the schlockier scenes featured in the film's trailers, dealing with the father-son relationship, are not actually in the movie.)
What makes Real Steel better than a lot of the other similar movies is its gritty edge, and its clearly defined characters. Hugh Jackman puts a lot into making the father, Charlie, into a believable douchebag, with a lot of anger and self-loathing and an amazing talent for self-destruction. Meanwhile, Dakota Goyo, who plays Charlie's son Max, manages to be cute without ever becoming treacly or annoying, and there's an undercurrent of anger and cynicism in Goyo's performance that's pretty palpable. Most kids in movies or television annoy the hell out of me, especially if they're precocious or whiny, and Goyo totally won me over. In fact, he pretty much steals the movie, as commenter ChangoFeo says.
In Real Steel, it's the year 2020, and the main change in society is that robots now box instead of humans. (Don't expect a realistic take on how super-advanced, highly versatile robots would transform society. It's a fantasy.) Charlie Kenton is a former boxer who coulda been a contenda, and now he remote-controls robot boxers instead. Except that Charlie sucks at his job, because he manages to get two perfectly good, super-expensive robots turned into overgrown paperweights with his overconfidence. Charlie is so deep in debt to so many ruthless operators, he'll be lucky if he doesn't get his legs broken.
Meanwhile, Charlie gets saddled with the son he abandoned at birth, after the kid's mother dies. They have to spend the summer together, before Max is handed over to his rich aunt and uncle. Charlie is too busy flushing the last of his robot boxing career down the tubes to pay much attention to Max — until Max finds an old robot in a junkyard that he's able to customize to be a very unusual sort of boxing robot. Max's robot, Atom, can learn from watching a person's actions, so Charlie is able to teach Atom to box in a way that no other robot does. Max and his dad basically learn to communicate by upgrading and teaching this robot, and then managing the robot's unlikely career.
Atom's underdog status also becomes a bit of a metaphor for class divisions — the sport of robot boxing is ruled over by the rich and powerful, who can afford to spend vast sums creating fighting robots with heuristic learning systems and unbelievably powerful bodies. The division between the haves and have-nots in robot boxing is never made a huge focal point, but the idea that technology favors people who already have massive resources gets brought up again and again.
On the surface, Real Steel is about how humanity can win out over machines. And how the underdog can win in spite of all the odds stacked in favor of the people who have the bigger, better robots. And how Charlie teaches his son's robot to box like a man, and in turn Charlie learns to be a real father.
But Real Steel is also about the love between a child and a robot. When Max stumbles upon the robot Atom in a junkyard, it's definitely one of those Spielbergian "wonder of discovery" moments. And Max is the one who drags the robot back to Charlie's truck by himself and cleans the robot up, eventually restoring and upgrading Atom to become a fighting robot unlike anything anybody's seen before. Some of the best scenes in the movie involve Max and Atom dancing together, taking a walk down the street — trashing fire hydrants and other bits of scenery as they go — and kicking the shit out of other, dumber robots. Atom isn't exactly self-aware — although the movie leaves it a bit ambiguous — but he's heavily customized and attuned to Max and his dad.
Anybody who's ever loved a piece of technology, or come to see a gadget or device as an extension of her- or himself, will identify with the idea of finding a cool robot that becomes your inseparable friend.
And the message of Real Steel isn't just that it's cool to love technology, and to personalize the technology we love. It's that something of us, our personality and our spirit, imbues the machines that we care about. Unlike the Transformers, which already have personalities of their own, the machines in Real Steel are extensions of who we are. It's nice to see an unambiguously pro-technology movie. (Even if it is heavily sponsored and product-placement-loaded by Microsoft and Sprint, among others.)
If you're lucky enough to see Real Steel in an audience where everybody's pumped up and cheering for the underdog robot, like I did, then you'll really feel immersed in the battle of robot against robot. At one point, when Atom was up against a killer super-bot named Zeus, at a moment of high tension and intense piston-arm action, someone in the audience at my screening shouted at the top of his lungs, "FUCK YOU, ZEUS!" Everybody in the theater laughed, but sympathetically — we knew what he meant.
Anyway, Real Steel is not a clever movie, or an Oscar-bait character study. But it's a fun ride that doesn't overstay its welcome. And it's a well-made twist on the usual heart-warming father-son story in which the father and son bond through their connection to a fighting robot. As much as love between humans is important in this film, it's love between a human and a machine that saves the day.