Someone should tell Real Steel that it’s a movie about boxing robots.
Upon hearing that this is the subject of the film, a few obvious influences probably come to mind: Likely Transformers. Certainly Rocky. Maybe Robocop. Yet the primary influence on Real Steel and overreaching director Shawn Levy (Date Night) appears to have been Kramer vs. Kramer, the Dustin Hoffman tearjerker about a divorced dad fighting for custody rights to his son.
Yes, Real Steel is actually a serious, self-important, overly long family drama, in which absentee dad Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is suddenly saddled with his 11-year-old son after the death of the boy’s mother. The fact that Charlie “manages” boxing robots on a sleazy sideshow circuit is almost an afterthought.
There is no reason why Real Steel shouldn’t have been good, dumb fun, but Levy appears to think he’s making something Important. Every moment is prettified as if this were some sort of prestige project; there isn’t an image shot plainly if it couldn’t be reflected in a puddle. The most laughable scene – in a movie about robotic pugilism, mind you – may be the one of Jackman filling his truck with gas. He’s framed against a blue, rural sky and gleaming cornfields as the camera tracks from one side of the gas station to the other. I don’t think the British royal wedding had as much production design as this brief transition shot.
I harp on this because it’s indicative of the sort of miscalculation in tone that plagues the entire movie. This includes the characters, who are either disagreeable or unnecessary. Jackman’s Charlie is a lout. He tries to abandon his son not once, but twice, runs out on bets he’s lost, steals machine parts and – worst of all – isn’t even that good at fighting his robots. As for Dakota Goyo, as Charlie’s son, he comes from the Shrill and Annoying School of Child Acting. And poor Evangeline Lilly, of “Lost,” is given a part that wavers erratically between sidekick and love interest.
We’re supposed to be rooting for these three to form a happy family, but I couldn’t have cared less. I just wanted some boxing robots.