The cinematography is the real star in Real Steel. Mauro Fiore (Avatar, The Island, Tears of the Sun) makes every shot in this film breathlessly gorgeous. In the opening scene, the twirling lights of a distant carnival are reflected in a truck window speeding toward it. Later there are fantastical Robot Boxing stadiums filled with thousands of screaming fans who seem to have emerged from a Mad Max remake.. In between are achingly beautiful nostalgia scenes and a really scary metal graveyard, incredible vistas and lots of poignant close-ups. Fiore’s visual mastery is helped greatly by glorious sets, great-looking lead actors, and some really inventive human-like robots. Though fewer in number than the robot population in The Transformers, thank goodness, the robots in Real Steel are enormously more interesting because they’re individual characters.
Though the director’s credit is given to Shawn Levy, Night at the Museum), Steven Spielberg is one of the executive producers and his signature is all over the film. A big, bold look, a sympathetic hero who needs forgiveness, a feisty boy who’s willing to give it, a woman who’s way too beautiful to be owning a run-down boxing gym, some boring bad guys, an exotic bad girl, and like all good rescue films, there’s a bloody beating leading to redemption and ultimate victory. There are no surprises in the film–it’s paint-by-number Spielberg–which is not a bad thing, it’s just nothing new, and a tad too long. Otherwise, Real Steel is fun and you don’t have to think much while you’re watching it.
Charlie (Hugh Jackman, still really buffed up from his Wolverine turn in X-Men) is a down on his luck robot manager who used to be a promising real boxer. These days he makes too many bad bets and runs out on most of them. He’s usually on the road, going from one carnival or fair to another where the sport of Robot Boxing–the metal beasts remote-controlled by their “managers” with joysticks–has fanatical fans. He drives a huge futuristic-truck along the nearly empty back roads of Michigan, passing the lovely landscapes without taking any notice. There are no cars on the road, in fact, no cars in the entire movie–nothing to ruin the timelessness of this particular future.
One day Charlie is notified that the mother of his son has died and he must go to court to finalize his rights to the child. He doesn’t want the kid–gave him up at birth 11 years before. But the boy’s aunt Debra wants him. Charlie manages to work a deal with the aunt’s rich husband: he’ll charge the couple $50,000 to take care of the boy for the summer and get another payment when he brings the boy back. Deal. So Max, (Dakota Ogo, Thor), who is of course wise beyond his years, and pretty buff for a kid, is handed over to Charlie who tells him. “Put on your seatbelt and don’t talk. ”
Charlie drives to the boxing gym run by his sometime girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly, TV’s Lost), who is also very buff. Here he picks up his new robot. Noisy Boy is a gleaming Japanese model with a few international miles on him. Bailey and Max figure out how to get Noisy Boy to respond to English, but Charlie, being his adult ADHD self, doesn’t bother to really learn how to operate the robot. So in their first big fight, disaster ensues.
In a metal junkyard, Max slides down an embankment and almost falls into an abyss, but is saved by the clutching arm of a discarded robot, named Atom. Max revives Atom, and using Atom’s unique “mimic” function, teaches him how to dance and make all kinds of boxing moves. Atom is a terrific character, not too dissimilar to E.T. actually, and the scenes in which Atom is guided to reach his inherent greatness by Max and Charlie are truly wonderful. By the time the movie’s over, everybody wants a robot to play with.
The unlikely threesome sets off on their heroes’ journeys–to cheering wins, heart-breaking setbacks and then the white-knuckle ultimate Rocky victory. Lots of tear-tugging moments along the way, as Charlie gropes his way toward adulthood.
If you’re going to see Real Steel, definitely see it on the big screen because part of its pleasure is it sheer immensity–not to mention the Danny Elfman soundtrack that seems to ricochet off the theatre walls.