** spoiler alert **
The PlotReal Steel is a combination father/son film and a boxing film, done with robots. It stars Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a former boxer who now owns a robot fighter. Kenton is broke and keeps tripping himself up at every opportunity by being rash. He accepts challenges too quickly and misses opportunities because he won’t stop to think. Kenton has a son, Max, who is being adopted by Kenton’s dead wife’s sister because Kenton doesn’t want him. Kenton wants money to make this happen and is, in essence, selling Max to the sister. Before this can happen, however, Max must spend a few weeks with Kenton. Hence, the father-son reconciliation plot is established.
The FormulaWhen I first heard about this film, I wondered what exactly they would do to make this film work. Boxing robots just isn’t naturally interesting to people because we can’t really sympathize with a machine that feels no pain and which doesn’t bleed. But the filmmakers were smart. Rather than just making this about the robots, they gave the audience the Max/Kenton reconciliation subplot, which they tied into Kenton’s robot winning. Thus, winning became important to the audience because they audience wants to see the father and son reconciled. Moreover, they cleverly found ways to make the audience prefer Kenton’s robot.
The reconciliation subplot is quite typical of father-son films. You have a son who feels that his father doesn’t care for him, and a father who must learn that his son is all he really cares about. So the film begins with the two characters about as far apart as possible to maximize the value of the eventual catharsis. In this case, Kenton is actually selling his son, and the son cares so little for the father that actually demands half the money! Could you get less love than that? Naturally, they are then thrown together and must learn to get along. Soon, they are arguing like actors in a buddy comedy as they slowly come to respect the other and finally to love each other. The moment where the respect turns to love is also punctuated with an excellent line when Kenton asks his son rhetorically what he wants from him and the son responds, “I want you to fight for me, that’s all I ever wanted!” This is a powerful moment in the film which will probably make you tear up and provides a satisfactory ending in and of itself, but the story isn’t done at that point. Instead, the fight with Zeus must still be fought.
Following the classic underdog storyline, Atom is laughed at by everyone until it wins its first fight. After that, it immediately becomes a crowd favorite, though the experts continue to laugh. This is sports populism and is common in sports stories. Each fight then plays out like every other film fight or every wrestling match, with the overmatched good guy brought down and nearly beaten before it suddenly discovers a reserve of will power and rises up to triumph over the opponent. Hulk Hogan became world famous doing this in every match he fought. Interestingly, the director even gives the sense that it is will power, rather than simply mathematics, which allows the robots to continue because the humans are cheering them on to stand back up and keep fighting. This is an important, but subtle, trick to humanize the robots.
Opposite the underdog is Zeus, the bad guy robot. Again, Zeus is the classic bad guy caricature. He’s made to appear larger than all the other robots, which makes him seem both unbeatable but also like he has an unfair natural advantage. He also wins his early matches in ways that seem unfair to the audience, such as when he knocks the arm off Kenton’s prior robot and then pummels the helpless robot into oblivion. Moreover, he was created by Tak Mashido who is presented as the arrogant, “hip” scientist who is too self-absorbed to even grant interviews and who disgustedly boasts that this challenge is beneath Zeus. Zeus’s owner is someone you dislike as well. She’s Farra Lemkova, an extremely beautiful, but cold rich woman who openly proclaims that she has spent whatever it took to buy a winner. This flies in the face of what people consider “fair” about sports, and is another example of sports populism. Zeus is primed for a fall.
Finally, there is Kenton. Kenton is the perfect example of the modern Hollywood loveable fake-“loser.” He’s a great looking guy with a clean background and a heart of gold. He’s surprisingly capable of getting his hands on large amounts of money as needed. But he keeps failing because he’s rash and he lacks the ability to express himself to the people who love him. Both of these flaws will be solved through the relationship with his son, as his son teaches him the value of thinking through his decisions and shows him how to open up. The film then finishes with the perfect touch of redeeming Kenton’s lost career. Before the robots came along, Kenton was a professional boxer. But the robots replaced humans and human boxing ended. This is shown to be a sore spot for Kenton which makes him question his self-worth. But at the end of the film, Atom’s voice control is broken and Kenton must lead Atom through the fight with his own boxing moves. Kenton’s “outdated” skills save the day.
All of this may sound sentimental and it absolutely is, but it works extremely well. Despite the heavy-handed themes, the dialog is light enough that you never feel like you’re being hit in the face with the manipulation and the story is overall quite entertaining and fast paced. The actors have good chemistry too and the effects are excellent. But most importantly, the story feels inspiring. In every way, this film is just like a normal sports film like Rocky, despite the presence of robots, and it really does work.
I recommend this one.