Review: Real Steel – Is It Zarjaz Or Is It Stomm?

Michael Moran reviews the movie all the cool kids are calling ‘The Robot Rocky’

Many modern thrillers take their inspiration from this morning’s newspaper headlines. Some sci-fi films are born out of some cutting edge research cribbed from last month’s New Scientist. Real Steel goes a little further back: It’s a concept straight out of the golden-age 2000AD playbook.

But is it zarjaz? Or is it stomm?

In fact Real Steel is more than just some recycled “Tharg’s Future Shock”. The original story is from the pen of Richard Matheson, the author of I Am Legend and it first appeared in one of the classic sci-fi pulp magazines before hitting the screen as an early Sixties Twilight Zone episode.

With that kind of stellar pedigree, and with Steven Spielberg overseeing the project as executive producer you’d expect great things of Real Steel, right?

Well, I think it depends on who just who you are.

The original Twilight Zone episode involved the trainer of a fighting robot disguising himself as his own robot rather than throw in the towel.

Yes. Exactly like that Simpsons episode.

Real Steel makes a couple of significant changes. For a start the action is set in the 2020s, rather than 1974. Even though all the clothing, transport and soft furnishings have a suspiciously contemporary look.

More importantly, there’s a shift in focus from Hugh Jackman getting thumped in the head by Sir Killalot to a heart-warming story of redemption.

Jackman’s character, Charlie Kenton, is a down and (almost) out former boxer who became a robot trainer when the mechanical monsters moved into the ring.

And he’s terrible at it, displaying a slapdash attitude that costs him fights, robots and significantly (cash?) money everywhere he goes.

Nevertheless he has the unfailing devotion and support of Evangeline Lilly, who runs some sort of gym / machine shop that no-one else ever uses.

A slightly clunky piece of plot machinery puts Charlie on the road with his estranged son Max, played by tousle-haired moppet Dakota Goyo (you might remember him from Defendor).

Together they – well mainly Max actually – rebuild the beaten-up old android that they found in fairytale fashion and turn it into a Rock ‘em Sock ‘em robot.

The robot, called Atom in a slight echo of Edwardian-era flyweight Jimmy Wilde, has an underexplored Chitty Chitty Bang Bang mystical intelligence. Even though the other robots in the film don’t seem to be artificially intelligent. In fact even the fanciest ones are operated with controls reminiscent of that gadget shop favourite the Robosapien. With a little bit of Xbox Kinect just for fun.

Setting aside its central cybernetic conceit Real Steel is a straight-up boxing movie.

It manages to slip in every fight game cliché you can remember. Except it isn’t half as harrowing when it’s not Robert DeNiro having lumps punched out of him.

In fact it’s kind of fun: The robot boxing sequences are brilliantly executed using a combination of animatronics, puppetry and CGI.

That other great imaginary future sport flick Rollerball left you thinking that you could do with a bit more..well..actual rollerball. Real Steel delivers robot combat early and often, and it’s unfailingly awesome.

It’s only when the fighting wasn’t happening that I had a bit of a problem. Night At The Museum director Shawn Levy is just slightly too keen to move things along, resulting in some character beats that are more than a little unconvincing and one scene that doesn’t hang together at all.

But he’s not trying to please middle-aged men.

If I were a 10 year old boy this would be the best film I’d ever seen. If I were that boy’s Mum I’d take him to see this in a heartbeat because Jackman is in spectacular shape in this movie.

The effects, especially the opening scrap between a robot fighter and a real live bull, are spectacular, and worth the price of admission alone.

And yes, there is dancing. And of course someone does ‘the robot’.

Real Steel isn’t going to win any prizes for originality, but if you want some undemanding action with an occasional dollop of Spielbergian sentiment then you’re going to have a good time watching it.

Lots of people love this film. A sequel is already on the cards. Personally, I had hoped for more but for the target demographic Real Steel is…yes, I’m going to say it..a knockout.

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