(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on 8 October, 2011, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/entertainment/reviews/real-steel/321178.html)
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Kevin Durand, Anthony Mackie
Director: Shawn Levy
Rating: 4.5 stars
If anyone says Rocky, Transformers, and Kramer vs Kramer thrown into a blender wouldn’t work, well, that someone hasn’t seen Hugh Jackman and a kid called Dakota Goyo give it a go. And the makers of Real Steel have found a boy who can act and dance, a robot that can box and boogie, and the perfect man to play bewildered dad to a precocious child.
The movie opens to bluesy country music as a tough guy with an intelligent face drives to a fairground, giving no indication of its futuristic setting. Turns out the story is about a former boxer, now a bankrupt and indebted robot-boxing promoter, trying desperately to make money. His one chance to resurrect his livelihood is his estranged son. Oh, no mush here – Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) plans to make money by selling custody of his son Max (Dakota Goyo).
Sometime before 2020, human beings have finally figured out there’s no point getting their bones broken in the ring when remote-controlled robots can take the blows instead.
Having lost his last robot, busted another one he can’t afford, failed to honour a bet with a guy you later find out is a nasty piece of work, and charmed his way out of paying rent, Charlie is endearingly prone to the last-minute fatal mistakes of an overconfident rake.
In comes a stubborn kid who’s ticked off that his father abandoned him, then got in the way of his Italian vacation, and finally sold him. Incredibly, for all his smart aleck comebacks and adamant grit, he stops short of annoying the viewer right through the movie – perhaps because his dad snubs him before the viewer is tempted to.
So a dad-son flick with an underdog robot – with all its potential for a heart warmer, you think you know what’s going to happen in the end. But this is one movie that sidesteps a cliché, and has you in tears nevertheless.
The film’s strength is that its script shuns maudlin; the story relies on its talented actors’ facial expressions and hesitant dialogue delivery to portray the gradual, uneasy bonding between father and son. The characters are beautifully underplayed, and when a violent interjection snaps the duo back to reality and forces them to confront the nature of their relationship, it’s hard to remember that these are actors playing roles.
The sound design of the movie deserves special mention – it uses silence, fading voices, muffled punches, and listener perspective at just the right places.
Every time an exchange threatens to get sentimental, a witticism or rebuff breaks the tension, and gets the audience laughing.
The cast has been chosen well. Playing a part very similar to the one that first got him critical acclaim in Resurrecting the Champ, Dakota Goyo is outstanding. Evangeline Lilly fits the bill as Bailey Tallet, the compassionate yet spirited daughter of Charlie’s late mentor. Of course there’s an understanding chick – every troubled hero needs one – but the makers of this movie have done well to keep her in the background for most of the film, only allowing her to talk sense into Charlie once.
Hugh Jackman slips into Charlie’s character with the same ease he did into Wolverine’s at the beginning of his Hollywood career, and the same intensity he brought to Robert Angier in The Prestige. He looks every bit the could-have-been-champ longing to get back into the rink. The only aspect of his character that doesn’t sit naturally on him is the accent – and it’s a tough call for even as gifted an Australian as he to pull off a Texan drawl.
On the subject, the one fault in the film is its bizarre collection of indecipherable – and unnecessary – accents, which leave one wishing for subtitles at times. In a rather meta moment, Charlie frowns, “What was that?” after failing to decode a sentence. It makes up, though, by spoofing sports presenters and their sugar highs subtly enough to avoid slapstick.
The final verdict: This drama proves that unlikely ingredients can make a fine cocktail. Don’t miss it.