Bay-dar bay·dar/ˈbādär / noun: the ability to deduce from a trailer that a film may consist of nothing more than a mindless cacophony of action and noise.
Upon first viewing the trailer for Real Steel, the latest effort from director Shawn Levy, I was surely not the only one whose Baydar tingled with the fear that this may be yet another film with nothing more to recommend it than the prospect of more large robots beating the Megatron out of one another. So, are we dealing with Rocky VII: This Time It’s Robots, or can Levy and leading man Hugh Jackman bring subtlety to the robo-blockbuster format?
In Real Steel, we find ourselves in the year 2020, a time when the primal violence of traditional boxing has been replaced in the public’s affection by the altogether more visceral thrills of huge, human-controlled machines fighting to the ‘death’ in the ring (think Robot Wars on a WWE scale). Jackman is Charlie Kenton, an ex-boxer who now cruises the highways of Texas and Nevada, fighting his rusting robot for small change and evading creditors at small town fairs.
Following the death of an ex-girlfriend, Kenton finds himself at a court hearing regarding the custody of his estranged son, leading to him strike the kind of deal which both stains his character in ways which seem impossible to overcome and sets up the father and son road trip which defines the film. The younger Kenton, Max, is a fan of the World Robot Boxing League and it is this common bond which offers Charlie’s shot at redemption.
Max is beautifully played by 12-year-old Dakota Goyo, whose previous roles include the young protagonist in Thor. His is a show-stealing, witty and wonderfully nuanced performance which avoids the brat trap that has snared so many child actors before him, and he easily overshadows Jackman’s cynical Charlie. There are echoes of the recent Super 8 in the uneasy, Spielberg-esque relationship which develops between Max, Charlie and Atom, the outdated robot, discovered by Max, which they take together into the seedy underworld of the low boxing circuit.
Whereas most of the fighting automatons resemble humanoid versions of the aforementioned Robot Wars contraptions (names such as ‘Noisy Boy’ being typical), Atom is more like Ted Hughes’ Iron Giant in a fencing mask. His glowing eyes possess a strange humanity that hint ambiguously throughout the film that he may indeed by sentient. Meanwhile, in the background, the supposedly unbeatable World Heavyweight Champion, Zeus, lurks like an end of level baddie.
There are some complaints: Zeus’ owner is a laughable Russian oligarch, whose accent and cold war frostiness recalls Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV (“If he dies, he dies”). There is also a strangely undeveloped relationship between Charlie and his ex-trainer’s daughter, played by Evangeline Lilly, who possesses a faith and trust in Kenton that his behaviour scarcely warrants. Our major villain, Ricky (another ex-prize fighter) also meets a less than satisfactory fate.
Ultimately, Real Steel lives or dies by its fight sequences, which are spectacular. As a film clearly aimed at a young demographic, the substitution of robots for humans allows a level of violence which would put Scorsese’s Raging Bull to shame. Using the legendary pugilist Sugar Ray Leonard as an adviser has ensured that many of the bouts are more realistic in terms of tactics than some traditional boxing movies, with the climactic battle bearing more than a slight resemblance to the celebrated doc Rumble In The Jungle. The novelty of placing the warring machines within the boundaries of the ring also allows for a visual focus that the roaming brawls of Michael Bay’s dreadful Transformers series lacks.
The mystery over how aware or otherwise Atom is adds something close to pathos to the fight scenes, as Max clearly cringes at the blows his adored discovery is forced to endure. Though lacking the broadly human characteristics of previous lovable robots – WALL-E and Short Circuit‘s Johnny 5 spring to mind – Atom’s simple underdog status is enough to inspire us to root for him as he battles the odds, not to mention a ten-foot colossus.
After a fairly dull first half hour, Real Steel turns into an enjoyable and accessible film, with the outstanding Goyo and the excellent special effects (many of the sequences are improved by the use of animatronics rather than CGI) particularly successful. So, rather than simply Rocky with robots, this is a film which provides action and even a modicum of emotion in surprisingly effective measures, even offering an ending which is not quite as predictable as its story arc suggests.
Contributor Michael Mand can be followed on Twitter @grindermand. Real Steel is released in cinemas on Friday October 14.