Very strange film this one. Imagine a sophisticated Robot Wars world, where basically the public want to see fights to the death, but without people dying, so what about huge mecha robots instead of humans? Well in this future world thats based on a novella from Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) is Hugh Jackman, a retired boxer who is stubborn, selfish and basically a bit of an idiot. His ex has died leaving him having to sign over the son he’s never seen to his ex’s rich sister. However, part of the deal is to take his son for the Summer while they enjoy a long holiday. Cue uplifting music …
This isn’t a film that’s going to add anything new, but it takes a well tried formula and shows how something cheesy can still work. Jackman gives something which could easily have become quite stupid into something that actually has an emotion pull behind it. You can come away from this film thinking it’s just a stupid action film, but I’d argue it’s much more of a drama. Which doesn’t help by being called ‘Real Steel’ – but then the title has a bit more meaning behind it. It’s saying that you might be tough and think you have balls of steel, but it takes real balls to do something like look after a kid – to become in a way, selfless, that is real steel. Not that Jackman ever completely goes that far, but his transition from lone wolf to Dad is a good one – and it helps that there are massive robots along the way.
As for the robot, director Shawn Levy, known for some far from funny fodder like Night At The Museum, gives their scrapyard robot a heart. Hard for something that basically shows no emotion. However the robot is actually a metaphor for the heart and soul of Jackman. They find him as he is literally holding onto his son, saving his life. He is covered in dirt and memories of old robot boxers (much like Jackman’s own past) and the son cleans him up, cares for him, makes him grow. The robot’s child like innocence is also apparent in the way it copies actions, it’s simple eyes, it’s bowl-cut like hair/helmet, his ability to take a knock but not good at fighting back. His weakness is actually his strength. There is some hint that the robot can understand the son, but doesn’t want to admit it, much like the way Jackman takes a while to admit to himself that he does indeed care about the son he’s never seen. The robot is the true inner strength of Jackman and it’s nice that this is acknowledged rather than a Michael Bay slugfest.
The most poignant scene for me was when the robot was left by himself, staring into the mirror – an extended shot that leaves the audience wondering if there is anything behind those blue eyes, be it fear or courage, it’s hard to tell, it’s literally a blank canvas for the audience to paint their own feelings on, if any. The robot becomes not only a sign for Jackman, but also a very real connection, albeit hobby, for him and his son to connect over. It’s quite a touching film that’s less about fighting and about their relationship, Jackman turning in front of everyone’s eyes from irresponsible to responsible, all the while making it believable that this kid could be his own son. The end becoming literally him fighting for him.
Of course there are stupid moments, there’s some awkward dancing, some one-dimensional enemies, a rather predictable and ridiculous Rocky plot – even for robot boxing, in addition to some unnecessary sub-plots. Also the fact you see the robot in the poster and trailers, you’re just tapping your foot waiting for him to start using the robot you know he’s going to use, which doesn’t really happen until halfway through. But that just might be me. The robots actually look quite good and not too cartoony, still quite like Transformers, but in a good way.
Overall, I really enjoyed it and with something that could have easily gone so wrong, it’s refreshing to see something that families can enjoy and that doesn’t have the gooey syrup of family fodder poured all over it. At the same time, as much as I love robots and watching them fight, I’d rather just watch Rocky.