Steven Spielberg seems omnipresent in the multiplex, even without having directed a film since 2008’s Indiana Jones And The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Once again, more often than you’ll see him credited as a director, you’ll see him credited as an executive producer. The role of an executive producer varies, and it doesn’t necessarily indicate Spielberg’s creative contribution to any of the films he’s been credited on this year.
It can be applied to Super 8, a production on which Spielberg was apparently very hands-on. Or Cowboys And Aliens, whose director, Jon Favreau, was given a list of western recommendations by Spielberg before shooting began. Or it can be applied as liberally as deciding to fire someone for comparing Michael Bay to Hitler, which I assume was the entirety of his input to the execrable Transformers: Dark Of The Moon.
The reason why all of this should be mentioned when talking about Real Steel is because the trailers make it look like Transformers, when in fact, it’s actually far closer in tone to Super 8. Indeed, in certain aspects of its nostalgia for Spielberg’s own catalogue of family movies, this one actually supersedes JJ Abrams’ film. For one thing, as much as I liked it, I don’t believe that Super 8 had a single original bone in its body.
Elsewhere, Real Steel builds a whole world, from a high concept resembling nothing so much more than a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots- The Movie. It’s 2020, and boxing as we know it has long since been made obsolete. Robots advanced to the point where they could dish out, and endure, more punishment than human combatants, and so that’s where all the promotion and sponsorship money goes.
Hugh Jackman stars as Charlie Kenton, a former boxer, now reduced to being a lowlife who takes his scrapheap robot Ambush on the road, and someone who indulges in animal cruelty for a quick buck. One fight doesn’t end well for the robot, and Charlie winds up with yet more debt, on top of the fortune he already owes to various loan sharks nationwide.
His day gets worse when he discovers an ex-girlfriend of his, the mother of his estranged son, has passed away. Charlie receives custody of their kid, Max, and wants nothing more than to wash his hands of the responsibility. Being the arsehole that he is, he finds a way to make money off of this too, reluctantly agreeing to look after Max over the summer into the bargain.
As much as it’s a sci-fi inflected sports movie, this is the essence of Real Steel, and it’s given enough thought and importance in the script that it’s not just another film about robots hitting each other. The pair discover a pile-of-junk sparring bot named Atom while scrounging around, and while Atom eventually hits a lot of other robots, it’s much more about what that means to Charlie and Max.
It’s not diminished expectations in action when I recommend Real Steel. I’m not merely saying that it’s not as bad as it looks, or that it’s only better than the Transformers movies. I’m not saying it’s free of product placement or obligations to studio shareholders. I’m saying it’s a fun and perfectly enjoyable family film, and certainly the best film Shawn Levy has ever directed.
Levy is a director from whom you might justifiably expect very little, having previously churned out Cheaper By The Dozen, Night At The Museum and The Pink Panther. But in the terms of a sports movie, the formula through which Real Steel thrives, that makes Levy an underdog. We don’t expect much from him, but he delivers, with the help of a smart and imaginative script by a seasoned sports movie scribe, John Gatins.
The somewhat obvious redemptive streak for Charlie is made much better for the fact that he doesn’t make him obviously redeemable from the outset. As mentioned, he partakes in animal cruelty, for the entertainment of rednecks, and it’s quite a while into the film before you can believe he cares for Max’s safety beyond his own self-preservation instinct.
It’s an unusual role for Hugh Jackman, reputedly The World’s Nicest Movie Star, but better known for playing Wolverine in the X-Men movies. My prediction would be that after The Wolverine, his next turn of snikt-ing and chewing cigars, he’ll hang up the claws, and if I’m right, this is the kind of role he should be playing to break out of that role.
Charlie isn’t exactly a lovable rogue, but Jackman sells both the early lack of moral fibre, and the discovery of his role as a dad. Spielberg’s influence is also seen in the film’s low-key romance, which sets up Charlie and Evangeline Lilly’s character, Bailey, in much the same way as Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood.
It might be sacrilege to say so, but I don’t say it lightly. Their character histories are very similar. Charlie was trained by her father, before he broke his heart, and Bailey’s, leaving her to run her father’s old business. Lilly is no Karen Allen, but she is a solid female character and not merely eye candy. Most importantly, however, Jackman has solid chemistry with his on-screen son, Dakota Goyo, who isn’t nearly as annoying as he appears in the trailers, and only about half as precocious.
Perhaps I’m talking about the characters a lot more than you might expect while reviewing a high-concept film about robots hitting each other, but then Real Steel subverted my expectations too. Still, the marriage of CG and animatronic in the robot fight scenes is convincing to the point that those scenes capture your imagination. And naturally, Atom and the mechanical combatants are all suitably ‘toyetic’.
The portrayal of the underground robot boxing scene is unexpected, but welcome, and still entirely within the proper bounds of a 12A certificate family film. You know, the ones which are flagrantly abused by one Mr Bay. Real Steel doesn’t punctuate its action scenes with lewd or sexually charged scenes, or transparently try to sell a film for children to the lucrative male teenage audience. Its endearing crossover appeal comes more naturally as a result.
Real Steel is a father-son story first, a sports movie second, and a sci-fi movie third, but its qualities are drawn from each. There are missteps, certainly. Even with the added emotional investment of what it means to Charlie and Max, those scenes of robots hitting each other are never quite as interesting as the human characters. But they’re still enough to justify that comparison to Super 8.
If Super 8 was a Spielberg throwback that could be enjoyed more by adults than kids, with more of a predilection for nostalgia than originality, then Real Steel is its equally enjoyable counterpoint. It’s a film that captures the ethic of those Amblin movies, adding buckets of imagination, too.
Happily for the studios, that’s what will make Real Steel pay off for kids and Toys R Us alike.
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