Sunday 21 January 2018

Review: Real Steel * * *

(12A, general release)

Paul Whitington

The plot of Shawn Levy's Real Steel could have been lifted straight from any of 100 boxing pictures, from Rocky to Requiem for a Heavyweight, but with one important difference. In this film, set in the near future, mankind has been relegated to the cheap seats, and the fighting is done by custom-built robots.

It's 2020, human boxing has been banned for health reasons (apparently it's bad for you), and giant, eight-foot 'bots' have been designed to slug it out in necessarily noisy contests that usually end in an orgy of destruction.

Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a former boxer who now scrimps a living driving around the fairs and circuses of southwest America with his fighting bot, Ambush. Charlie is an irresponsible ne'er-do-well who owes money to everyone, and when Ambush is destroyed in a fight with a bull, he loses his only source of income. Fate then springs to the rescue, but in most unlikely fashion. Charlie receives a call to inform him that his old girlfriend has died, leaving behind his 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo), whom Charlie hasn't seen in years.

When Max's aunt, Debra (Hope Davis), announces that she wants to take legal custody of him, Charlie spots an opportunity. He tells Debra's wealthy husband, Marvin, that he'll sign the kid over in exchange for $100,000. Marvin agrees, but only if Charlie promises to look after the boy for a few weeks while they're away on holiday. Charlie, an inveterate high-stakes gambler, immediately blows his newfound wealth on a fancy-looking new robot called Noisy Boy. Noisy Boy may look the part but is reduced to a pulp in his first outing, leaving Charlie even more in debt and fresh out of ideas.

But when he and Max find an abandoned robot called Atom while searching for parts on a scrap heap, Max sees potential in Atom and gets him ready to fight. Atom is much smaller than the newest fighting bots, and was only intended as a sparring partner. But Max thinks he has the potential to be a champion, and persuades Charlie to train the bot to fight.

Real Steel is given a half-hearted romantic component through the presence of Evangeline Lilly (late of Lost), who plays the owner of a struggling boxing gym and Charlie's on-off sweetheart. And Olga Fonda and Karl Yune are the baddies, the owner and inventor respectively of Zeus, a giant, thuggish robot that's the current world champion. Old Charlie is pretty morally ambivalent himself, a tricksy gambler and liar who's prepared to sell his own son for a song. But you just know that he's ripe for reformation, and that his ill-humour won't last the entire film.

I'm not sure Jackman was the best man for this job, but he does okay overall, and Goyo is excellent as Max, a stubborn and indomitable boy. Extremely loosely based on a 50s short story by science-fiction writer Richard Matheson, Real Steel sounds a bit contrived and is. It's formulaic, predictable and unoriginal in the extreme, but it's also cleverly and cleanly made and surprisingly entertaining.

In films such as Transformers, the charmless robots fill the screen and make a deafening racket, but Real Steel's fighting bots are more human, and manageably sized. The fight scenes are nicely handled, and Atom is cleverly pitched as a kind of Ali bot, a lighter, quicker machine that uses his speed and fast hands to bamboozle the bigger robots.

Atom also has a 'shadow mode' that allows him to perfectly mimic a human's movement, an idea that's used to good effect in key scenes. The relationship between Atom and Max is touching but not overdone: the robot's personification is only hinted at, and the little boy seems to know more than we ever do.

It's clever stuff, and the film's climax, which is telegraphed from a mile out, is nicely done and even strangely moving.

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