Being a boxer in the year 2020 is no picnic. When the boxing biz banned all flesh-and-blood bouts and turned to 1,000 lb robot battles, it certainly gave fans more bang for the buck, but it left Charlie Kenton hanging.
Instead of being a contender, Charlie’s relegated to being a nobody who’s left to cart a jury-rigged contraption of a robot to rinky-dink county fairs. And then, when his mech is dismantled and demolished by a gigantic bull, he loses even that small hold on his life.
What’s next? Well, the news that his ex-girlfriend has passed away and he’s the sole guardian of their son, Max. Not that Charlie would even know the kid’s name. He’s never met the 11-year-old. And he doesn’t really want to have anything to do with him now.
Make some money off him. It’s seems Max’s aunt wants to take charge of the kid. And her rich husband will even fork over a substantial under-the-table payoff if Charlie will sign over his parental rights. Oh, and keep the boy for the summer so they don’t have to give up their fancy vacation.
That suits Charlie just fine. Maybe he can stick the kid with his current girlfriend for a few months. And if not, well, what’s the harm in letting the lad tag along on the battlebot circuit? After all, the money’s he’s making off the deal makes it possible to buy another mech.
During their forced time together, though, the kid starts growing on Charlie. He’s a smart kid. A little mouthy, but smart, and tough. And he’s got a certain touch with the robots. Especially that piece of junk, second-gen, sparring bot they picked up at the scrapyard. Hmmm. Maybe this dad stuff ain’t all bad, Charlie starts to think.
So as gruff and emotionally unapproachable as Charlie seems—almost as if he were one of the lifeless robots in the ring—there’s a tenderness underneath his hard-as-nails exterior. With time, it’s obvious that he starts seeing in his son some of the better parts of the person he himself used to be. And that pushes him to admit his wrongheadedness and apologize to the boy for being a deadbeat dad. He tells him, “You deserve better than me.”
And though Max sports his own mini-version of his dad’s hardheadedness, he definitely wants a connection and lets his father know where he stands, saying, “I want you to fight for me! That’s all I ever wanted.”
Charlie’s friend Bailey is the third leg of this emotional triangle. She and Charlie have known each other since he trained with her dad. And there’s no question that she’d do anything for Charlie. As Charlie grows closer to the boy, we start to see him open up to his true feelings for Bailey too.
When Charlie and Max take the boy’s seriously overmatched little robot into its first official league fight, Charlie suggests to his son that he pray for the match.
Women wear low-cut, formfitting dresses. A card-carrying “round girl” walks the ring dressed in a metallic-looking suit that emphasizes her curves. At an unauthorized robot battle in a deserted zoo, the crowd is composed of many shirtless guys; women dress in shorts and bikini tops. Charlie strips off his T-shirt for the camera. Bailey is generally clad in shorts and a tank top, sporting lots of leg.
After a particularly difficult series of events, Charlie shows up at Bailey’s gym, finding her fast asleep. He lies down beside her on her bed and gives her a gentle hug. (It’s more of a love-and-comfort hug than a prelude to sexual activity.) The next day, they share a brief kiss.
Real Steel’s robotic battles are incredibly well-choreographed as the director seamlessly merges real and CGI battlebots. It’s even been reported that famed boxer Sugar Ray Leonard was an essential part of the motion-capture mix. And that means the fights are more art than base bombardment. But it doesn’t mean they’re placid. We see metal crumple, oil spurt, mech limbs break and a robo-head fly after getting knocked off by a mighty iron-fisted blow.
Charlie delivers a few punches to foes in and out of the ring too. He and Max get chased by a trio of thugs who want money and some physical payback for Charlie’s poor financial choices. Max is tossed violently to the ground and Charlie is beaten, kicked and pummeled till he lies still, crumpled, bloodied and barely conscious.
Max slips off a steep muddy incline during a rainstorm and almost falls to his death. (A protruding robot arm snags the back of his coat; he then dangles over a frightening precipice.)
Two s-words. There are also five or six uses each of “d‑‑n,” “h‑‑‑” and “a‑‑.” We hear “b‑‑ch” once or twice. “Oh my god” makes three or four appearances.
When we first meet Charlie, he’s waking with a hangover, his floor scattered with empty beer bottles. He immediately grabs a nearby open bottle and takes a swig as a morning pick-me-up. People attending the various robot fights drink beer and hard liquor.
After working all night, fueled by quite a few cans of Dr. Pepper, Max appears a bit buzzed by the caffeine.
Charlie and Max repeatedly gamble, placing bets on the outcome of their robot’s bouts. Charlie breaks into a junkyard and leads Max in to steal spare robot parts.
Charlie tells Max that some battlebot arenas are so rough they’ll cause him to “pee” his pants.
In an interview with Access Hollywood, Real Steel star Hugh Jackman talked about his own kids (son Oscar, 11, and daughter Ava, 6) and their reactions to his latest movie role.
“This is the first time they’ve really connected with one of my films. I don’t let them watch X-Men,” the actor said. “Most of the time they don’t really ask me much about my job. They come on set, but it’s just Dad, it’s normal. This is the first time they were like, ‘We love this!’ And they wanna take their friends. … I read this script for the first time with my son … I was like being a bad parent and instead of reading Tintin, I read Real Steel and my son made me read it to him for the next 10 nights. So I knew we were on to a winner then.”
Now, me being a guy who remembers oh so many moments of adolescent joy spent mashing little thumb buttons on a Rock’Em Sock’Em Robots game—imagining them as enormous iron machinations clunking away in some wonderful land of robotic wonders—I can fully identify with Mr. Jackman’s son. I mean, who wouldn’t want to hear a futuristic fighting bot tale or actually see electrodes popping and servos whirring up on the big screen?
This boy-digs-up-rusty-robot tale does a great job of energetically capturing the essence of that youthful intrigue. Which makes me all the madder about the few broken bits in this mech-man mix. Young Max is just a little too obnoxious for his own good sometimes. His persistence in ignoring his less-than-dear-old dad’s words and repeatedly mouthing off get a bit old. I certainly would have preferred him not spitting out a handful of mild cuss words when he’s in the midst of all that mouthing.
And while we’re on the subject of Max’s actions, the gambling a big problem too. And one’s suspension of disbelief is sometimes stretched over what an 11-year-old could really accomplish when programming a battered pile of bolts and widgets and thingamajigs pulled from a junk heap.
On the other hand, there’s also more to this battlebot parade than just the kid-cool factor Jackman and I both like. The voiceless and mindless automaton Max ends up with conveys more personality with his sad, blue, glowing eyes than a dozen Transformers. And even more important, amidst the movie’s involving action we get an endearing (and inspiring) story of reconciliation between a wounded, motherless boy and his flawed father—a man who eventually realizes all he’s missed in the course of his past choices and longs to be something better.
After seeing the film, a colleague mentioned how he wondered whether or not the dad would have been so willing to “put up with” the boy if he hadn’t been so good at controlling robots and willing to gamble on his skills. The answer’s not an emphatic yes. But I think it is still a yes. Near the beginning of their relationship after Max almost falls off the cliff, there’s a moment when Charlie holds his son in his arms for the first time. It’s an act that powerfully communicates a sudden and totally unexpected emotional connection. Dad covers it quickly, and he doesn’t immediately stop acting like a self-centered jerk. But later, when he gets to the point of saying “You deserve better than me,” what he really means is “I love you.” That’s enormous movement for this guy. And it’s movement that happens well before the big win.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.