Real Steel (2011)

C- SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

Real Steel is just plain unpleasant to sit through. So much of the movie is spent amid screaming crowds and abrasive music, often in dark, trashy dives, watching giant robots pound each other into scrap metal. The robot boxing is surprisingly good (Sugar Ray Leonard was a consultant). It’s the humans that are unpleasant.

Directed by Shawn Levy. Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Kevin Durand, Anthony Mackie, Olga Fonda, Karl Yune, Hope Davis, James Rebhorn. Touchstone/Dreamworks.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value


Age Appropriateness

Teens & Up

MPAA Rating


Caveat Spectator

Much sci-fi mayhem and a scene of ordinary brutality; much familial dysfunctionality; crass language and limited profanity.

Just now, on a whim, I Googled "Real Steel" "white trash", wondering how often discussion of the film would include that term. Here is a result I didn’t expect:

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and DreamWorks SKG are currently shooting the feature film ‘Real Steel’ starring Hugh Jackman in the Detroit, Michigan area. The film’s extras casting director, Tracy Dixon, is seeking men of any age or ethnicity who have unusual hair styles such as dreadlocks, bald, long hair, etc. They are also seeking white trash, rough looking types, seedy types, criminal looking people etc.

“White trash, rough looking types, seedy types, criminal looking people etc.” What do you know—the movie is full of people just like that. To be fair, the later fight scenes are set in classier joints—more like the arena where the big Sparta tournament was staged in Warrior. The screaming fans are less seedy, but the music is still abrasive: Beastie Boys, 50 Cent, Eminem and others whose names you may be more familiar with than I am, if you’re the target audience of the film, which obviously I am not.

Who is the target audience? Here is a leading indicator: Jackman’s costar, Dakota Goyo, plays an 11-year-old boy named Max (Goyo just turned 12, but he was 11 during filming). The age of the kid is a good indication of the age of the putative target audience. What parent wants to take their 11-year-old to a movie where white trash, rough looking types, seedy types, criminal looking people etc hang around screaming in dark, trashy dives with loud, abrasive music? Not to mention the violence—human on human as well as bot on bot.

I exclude, of course, parents like Charlie (Jackman), a former boxer turned small-time robot boxing promoter who has never met his son. (The goofy premise: The story is set in a near future when human pugilism has been eclipsed by robot combat.) The first time Charlie meets Max is after a custody hearing at which Charlie has been forced to put in an appearance by the death of an old girlfriend he hasn’t seen in over a decade, leaving Charlie with custody of Max.

Charlie’s sole intention in showing up is to sign Max over to his late girlfriend’s first available relative who wants him, which is Max’s aunt Debra (Hope Davis), who is married to an older gentleman named Marvin (James Rebhorn) with lots of money. Noting the lots of money part, Charlie develops a second intention: He still wants to sign Max over, but he surreptitiously hits up Marvin for money. That’s right: Charlie wants to sell his kid.

The catch is that Marvin has a secret from Debra too: a child-free European vacation he’s been looking forward to. The agreement these two model father figures come to is this: Charlie will keep Max until Debra and Marvin get back from their vacation, on the pretense that Charlie feels guilty about his past neglect of Max and needs some time with him before giving him up. Max will pay Charlie $50,000 up front and $50,000 on delivery. Debra will get the kid in the end, and everyone will be happy.

Of course Charlie doesn’t really plan to hang around with Max for two months. Ha ha! Of course not. He plans to foist him off on another old girlfriend, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), the daughter of Charlie’s old coach from back in the day. Bailey knows what an irresponsible bum Charlie is, but despite herself she’s still susceptible to his charming smile, and her face lights up when she tells Max how good Charlie used to be in the ring. “Dad loved you like a son,” Bailey tells Charlie, which makes you wonder what was wrong with Bailey’s father, and Bailey herself for that matter.

It goes without saying that Max will get involved in Charlie’s work with robots, and father and son will bond over the course of the movie. But can the movie redeem Charlie enough to make him a worthy father in the end? I’m not sure even the filmmakers were sure of the answer. Real Steel isn’t so much ambiguous as confused over whether Max should wind up with Charlie or Aunt Debra.

In one scene, tipping the scales away from Charlie, he’s jumped by some thugs he stiffed earlier in the film and takes a vicious beating, and even Max is roughed up. But then when Debra finally takes custody of the boy, she tries to win him over with materialism (swimming pool, hot tub, toys). By the last act, the movie seems to be trying to rehabilitate everybody.

Max is remarkably obnoxious for an 11-year-old, which I choose to blame on the screenplay and director Shawn Levy (also responsible for the Night at the Museum broken-family films) rather than Goyo. Goyo and Jackman do get a few poignant moments. When Charlie, frustrated, tells Max that he doesn’t know what the boy wants, Max shouts, “I just want you to fight for me! It’s all I’ve ever wanted!” A lot of the intended emotion of the climax hinges on Charlie’s profound reluctance to acknowledge his boxing past in any way, a reluctance the movie doesn’t really earn, although Jackman sells it anyway.

The rock-em-sock-em end of the plot—which is actually the more enjoyable bit, except for the arena culture—hinges on Charlie and Max’s efforts to take an obsolete old sparring bot named Atom to the top, eventually challenging the fearsome high-tech titan of the robot boxing world, Zeus. I won’t get bogged down in the brain-dead sci-fi, and how the movie flirts with the idea that Atom is self-aware but doesn’t go anywhere with it, etc. (That way lies madness.)

I will note that in a movie in which everyone else has an American accent or pretends to, Team Zeus consists of not one but two arrogant furriners with heavy accents (Olga Fonda’s haughty Russian ice queen and Karl Yune’s scornful Japanese technocrat). The movie goes crazy with product-placement advertising, too, even prominently hawking one product, the Xbox 720, that won’t be released for years and hasn’t even officially been announced. Now that’s thinking ahead.

Family, Science Fiction, Sports