Real Steel Review: Genuine Mettle

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REAL STEEL (12A): On General Release Friday 14th October

Who remembers Rock’em Sock’em Robots, the children’s game in which plastic robots battled it out in bouts of pugilistic violence which more often than not ended with someone going home crying?  Well, that high concept is now a movie in the shape of Real Steel.

It’s the near future. Hugh Jackman stars as Charlie Kenton, a down on his luck former boxer who now dabbles in the sport of robot boxing – bouts between 12 foot metal men that often leave the loser literally in pieces.  He’s up to his neck in debt when he’s forced into taking care of his unwanted 11 year old son Max (Dakota Goya) when Max’s mother dies.

Luckily Max knows a thing or two about robots and after repurposing an old sparring robot that he names Atom as a fighter, he starts winning low level fights, eventually getting a shot at the big time as the promoters of the World Robot Boxing League sit up and take notice.

It’s testament to how much of a likable screen presence Hugh Jackman is that he manages to make Charlie wholly sympathetic even while he’s doing reprehensible things (trying to sell Max to his aunt and wealthy partner, running out on bad debts, mugging like a champ with Evangeline Lilly).

Dakota Goya is more hit and miss.  He’s engagingly tenacious when it comes to fighting for his robot and arguing with Charlie but whoever scripted the scenes in which he does a little entrance dance to go with Atom’s appearances deserves to be rapped on the nose with a rolled up newspaper.

The robot fights themselves are well choreographed and because they’re based on motion capture rather than CGI, they have a believable weight; the dents and clangs of the combatants make it easy to get behind the heroes; the mangled mess of metal espoused by the likes of Transformers is thankfully nowhere in sight.

In the quieter moments there are tantalising hints that Atom might be more than just a machine – an angle which unfortunately is left undeveloped as it would have made a more interesting premise than simply “Rocky with robots”.

Real Steel is essentially a sports movie and every sports movie needs to navigate the perilous pitfalls of cliché.  Warrior did this admirably a few weeks ago, wearing familiar tropes proudly safe in the knowledge that its heart and acting skill could carry it through.

Real Steel is similarly full of cliché but lacks the chops to really pull it off. Max’s relationship with Atom is heart-warming if cynically constructed – there are numerous moments when a neon flashing sign reading “BE SAD NOW” could have flashed up on screen.  Nevertheless, when the two are interacting with each other, it’s easy to forget that Atom is a robot.

Less successful is the relationship between Charlie and Bailey his former trainer’s daughter and romantic interest which feels duct-taped on as an unnecessary extra and the villain of the piece, Farra Lemkova (Olga Fonda) whose entire character is based around her scowling and spouting icily cheesy putdowns.

There’s also a hideously misjudged opening sequence in which Charlie’s robot has a fight with a bull which is in extreme poor taste.  Quite why it was included is a mystery unless it was to add formidable weight to the side of the scales marked “Charlie is a bastard”.

But this blip and some laughable clichés aren’t enough to discourage the innate likability of Real Steel – a good, mostly family friendly (bull bashing notwithstanding), boxing drama with some genuine heart.  Hungry Hungry Hippos: The Movie is surely only moments away.

Follow Jez Sands on Twitter.

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