I will admit shamelessly that I become emotionally involved in films. Yes, I even cry in some of them. The final scene of “An Affair to Remember” reduces me to tears every single time I see it, and Spencer Tracy’s last speech in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” has the same effect. I also become choked up whenever I merely hear the theme from “Brian’s Song,” and I always take a precautionary handkerchief when I walk into any film dealing with animals.
But eleven years ago when I strolled into the theater and sat down, if someone had told me I would find myself weeping as I watched a volleyball float away from a raft, I would have considered the source of such a remark a serious candidate for electroshock therapy. However, when Chuck Noland, portrayed by Tom Hanks, lost Wilson, portrayed by a volleyball, in “Cast Away,” I cried as if I had witnessed Chuck’s seeing his mother or father drown.
I had a similar experience as I viewed “Real Steel” recently. I initially had no interest is seeing a film about boxing robots. In fact, I could think of nothing more absurd, but then I heard that film also was a good story about a father and his estranged son, and so I sat down fully intending to walk out soon after the opening credits rolled by.
I never left. In fact, during the final scenes I found myself rooting for a robot fighter named Atom every bit as hard as I did for Rocky Balboa in all of his fights. Yes, I cheered for a damn robot. A mass of metal and wires completely wrapped me around its circuit board. Indeed, I was riveted to my seat during the final boxing match. What a pleasant surprise this film is!
Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a former boxer living at an undisclosed time in the future after it has become illegal for human beings to engage in boxing matches for money. In this new world only robots are permitted in the ring, and they win money for their owners. Charlie travels around trying scare up some matches for his battered second-rate robot, but when he books a fight that virtually destroys his pile of junk, he is in real trouble because he no longer has a robot, and he owes a lot of money for past bouts that his machine has lost.
Now 11 years ago, Charlie fathered a son named Max (Dakota Goyo), but he ran out on the baby and its mother. When Max’s mother dies without leaving a will, it makes Charlie the boy’s legal guardian. Max has been living with his Aunt Debra (Hope Davis) and her incredibly wealthy husband, Marvin (James Rebhorn). Charlie wants no part of raising Max, but Debra is willing provide a home for him with her and her husband. Thus, Charlie, who desperately needs money, makes a deal with Marvin. In exchange for $100,000, Charlie will relinquish his right as Max’s guardian, but he must also agree to take care of Max during the summer while Debra and Marvin tour Italy.
And so Max and Charlie embark upon a hunt for a new robot, and Max finds an old, beat-up one at a robot junkyard. His new friend’s name is Atom, and Max enlists the help of Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), Charlie’s occasional girlfriend, to fix up Atom. Then he begins nagging Charlie to get Atom some fights, and the Rocky of robots is born.
“Real Steel” is a consistently entertaining film for the entire family because it provides lots of sports action (You will forget that you are watching robots.) along with a touching story about the relationship between a father and son. I was really prepared to dismiss this film as just another transformer-type science-fiction movie, but Jackman and Goyo make you care about their characters, and I was sucked into the movie from the very beginning.
The film was directed by Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”), and in the production notes he recalled a conversation that he had with Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider that ultimately led to his involvement in the project.
“They called me up and talked about what at first sounded like a crazy idea for a movie. Of course I was super-flattered, but I was on the fence about the premise. Then I read the script. What I found was an opportunity to make an emotional father/son/sports movie. That was galvanizing for me.”
Also in the production notes, Jackman concurred with Levy’s assessment that the idea of a father-son movie was so appealing and offered some additional insight about why he wanted to make the film.
“What I loved first and foremost about the script is the father/son relationship and the idea that people who have made mistakes, who have regrets, can get a second chance, and they can become better people.
“All my professional life I’ve wanted to be in a movie that affected me in the way ‘Rocky,’ ‘Chariots of Fire’ and ‘Dead Poets Society’ did when I was growing up. Those movies inspired me, got me jumping out of my seat, made me laugh and totally involved me emotionally. This is the realization of a dream for me. I feel we’ve made a movie that will entertain and inspire people in the way those movies did for me.”
The most remarkable aspect of this movie, however, is the way it sells the idea of the robot boxing matches and makes you completely buy into the premise. The final championship match between Atom and Zeus is particularly effective because it manages to draw from the “Rocky” movies and the fights of Muhammad Ali. At one point when Atom is getting the nuts and bolts pounded out of him, he backs up against the ropes and beckons for Zeus to come after him the same way Rocky and Ali did. And he even employs Ali’s famous rope-a-dope technique. In an added touch, the ring announcer sounds delightfully like the ubiquitous Michael Buffer.
The fight choreography is a masterpiece of technology, and in the production notes Levy explained what was involved.
“Here’s what it all really means. We put fighters in the ring wearing data capturing jumpsuits. They do the fight. Their moving data––the data that is their motion––is converted into a robot avatar on the screen simultaneously. Then we’re able to go to our live fight venue, line up a camera on an empty ring, and the technology allows you to take the robot fighting that you did six months earlier and put it in that ring in real time as you’re watching it.
“Real Steel” (It gets an impressive eight.) was a real surprise for me. It’s packed with action in addition to being a touching story about the strength and importance of familial relationships. Atom is an awesome robot boxer, and if there is a sequel, I will be ringside.