Based on Richard Matheson’s short story “Steel”, which was first published in 1956 and was also adapted by Matheson into a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone, this sci-fi drama from director Shawn Levy and producer Steven Spielberg stars the X-Men franchise’s Hugh Jackman as down-on-his-luck boxing promoter Charlie Kenton.
Charlie used to be a boxer himself, but the type of boxing he participated in gradually fell out of favor as a new variation gained popularity: robot boxing, the brutality and carnage of which excited crowds to a degree that the sight of humans punching each other just couldn’t compete with any longer. Robot boxers have gone through several generations by the film’s setting of the year 2020, and while the latest and greatest bots fight in the World Robot Boxing league, the earlier generation bots ended up in scrap heaps… Or fighting in underground matches, which is where Charlie does his business. In the world of boxing, the robots Charlie fixes up with the help of his longtime pal Bailey (Evangeline Lilly of Lost) and takes around to matches (which usually result in him losing money and getting in debt to dangerous people) may be obsolete, but there’s nothing more obsolete than himself, a human boxer.
As the story begins, Charlie discovers that his ex-girlfriend has died, leaving the custody of his 11-year-old son Max, who he hasn’t seen or talked to in years, up in the air. While Charlie agrees to let his ex’s sister take full custody of the boy, he also uses the kid to make a business deal with the sister’s wealthy husband, getting paid to take care of Max for the summer while they leave the country on vacation. He doesn’t care about Max, he just wants the money so he can buy a new robot.
In a turn of events reminiscent of the 1987 Sylvester Stallone movie Over the Top, the estranged father and son gradually grow to bond and care for each other against the backdrop of sporting events, driving from match to match in an old semi truck. In Over the Top, the truck driving father was an arm wrestler, here we have the robot boxing.
Charlie’s robots fail repeatedly, but he finally starts seeing some success with a robot that Max digs up out of a junkyard. A Generation 2 bot called Atom, who responds to voice commands and also has a “shadow mode”, where it will mimic the movements of its trainer. With Max’s drive, smarts, and determinations, and Charlie’s experience, Atom ascends from the underground to the big leagues, ultimately getting a match against the ultra-hi-tech WRB champion Zeus.
Despite its Matheson and Twilight Zone pedigree, Real Steel was met with a lot of derision when it was first announced, with people mocking it as “Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots: The Movie” and snarkily guessing that the climactic sequence would see Hugh Jackman getting into the ring for a human vs. robot fight. I was intrigued but hesitant when I went to see it… and found it to be a much better, more enjoyable film than I expected it to be.
The robot boxing sequences are quite fun to watch, the gradual growth of the father/son relationship is heartwarming, and the futuristic sci-fi quality is grounded so the setting is still relatable. That aspect of the film is what really won me over about it; the beautiful American farmland countrysides that Charlie and Max make their ways through between bouts, the roadside motels and county fairs, the fact that Charlie drives an early 1950s International Harvester semi truck. Plus, any movie that emulates Over the Top gets extra points from me.
This film really only shares basic concepts with Matheson’s story, but it does a fine job expanding on and building a world out of those concepts.
Interestingly, the Twilight Zone episode did indeed have the boxing promoter climb into the ring against a robot opponent. As you would expect, he nearly gets beaten to death. With the addition of Atom’s “shadow mode”, Real Steel finds a way to get Charlie more involved with the climactic punch-out while avoiding the absurdity that would be the sight of seeing a man go against the hulking metal beasts that are the robots of the WRB.
Real Steel is more than its logline may have made it out to be. Give it a chance and you may be pleasantly surprised, as I was.