Formulaic sports films upset me. There aren’t any surprises, unexpected twists, deep plot points that require concentration—just two hours rooting for the underdog, leading up to a completely predictable conclusion. To make matters worse, as a general rule the more inevitable the plot, the more predictable the scenes, and the more uplifting the ending, the less cinematic the film. That’s the case here. Any attempts at bucking the formula in favor of cinematic greatness are completely absent leaving the audience with an occasionally entertaining, but incredibly mediocre, film.
In the futuristic world of Real Steel, human boxing has been abandoned in favor of mechanical pugilism. It’s more violent, more intense and each round ends with more carnage. Former champion boxer Charlie Kenton is a small-time promoter, building and fighting scrap robots. His luck is bad and his gambling debts are piling up. When Charlie is forced to take custody of his 11-year-old son, Max, he sees this as only another liability. But when Max finds a sparring robot named Atom, he convinces Charlie to book Atom a fight. Against all bets, Atom wins. Charlie sees this as his chance at a comeback, and an opportunity to rebuild his relationship with his son.
The plot is as expected—obvious, the outcome of each scene determined at its outset. The father-son storyline was cute, sometimes even touching, but there were never any surprises. Bad father-son relationship at the beginning; family harmony at the end. The sports scenes were the same, the result of each round a sure bet before the ring of the starting bell.
Hugh Jackman isn’t a great actor. Yet there’s something about him that makes him an instant hero. Even when Charlie was still a loser, I couldn’t help but cheer for him. His charm made up for his lack of talent. Evangeline Lilly, on the other hand…not so much. Her acting was robotic, lifeless and pathetic; her character felt forced and fake. Young Dakota Goyo was cheeky as Max, but the character was such a brat that I couldn’t really stand watching him. The acting is paltry, reflecting the overall quality of the film.
To be fair, the actors had little to work with, script-wise. The dialogue was populated by countless platitudes and clichés—typical sports movie fare. But the incessant corniness made the exchanges painful to listen to. All the dialogue was devoid of any nuance, talking down to its audience by explaining every single detail.
As is the case with most sports films, the sports scenes were the most anticipated and the most exciting. Real Steel doesn’t disappoint in this area. Underdog Atom rises to fame in glorious and inspiring fashion. The robot boxing scenes are beautifully made with special effects so lifelike, the robots could actually be real. But these scenes were too few and far between, spread out over two hours of unbearable filler.
One surprise was the fact that this film, marketed towards families, featured frequent profanity. The language was never strong, but it was regular, salty and crude. More surprising is that much of the bad language was uttered by the 11-year-old protagonist. The inclusion of such crudities was likely an attempt to ratchet up the rating in order to attract older teens and adults.
Like a boxer who only knows one punch, Real Steel has one strength: robot boxing. But take away these scenes and all that’s left is a weak story, pathetic acting, awful dialogue and a disappointing score. The film is a piece of cinematic trash at its worst, a guilty pleasure-waste of two hours at best. Not worth the waste of time.