In 1956, a man named Richard Matheson had a short story called “Steel” published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and it was good. Then it was made into an episode of The Twilight Zone, also called “Steel”, and it was less good. Now, with the word “Real” tacked onto the front of the title, it’s made the leap to the big screen — sort of, since it’s only very loosely based on the story. But if you think this sounds uncomfortably like the horror that was The Box, don’t worry.
In 1956, a man named Richard Matheson had a short story called “Steel” published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and it was good. Then it was made into an episode of The Twilight Zone, also called “Steel”, and it was less good. Now, with the word “Real” tacked onto the front of the title, it’s made the leap to the big screen — sort of, since it’s only very loosely based on the story. But if you think this sounds uncomfortably like the horror that was The Box, don’t worry. It worked much, much better this time.
Hugh Jackman from Australia — the movie, I mean, though he’s also from the country, of course — plays Charlie Kenton, a promising ex-boxer turned small-time promoter. That sounds ordinary enough, of course, but in this not-very-distant future, robots have taken over for humans in the boxing ring, which is why Charlie retired. I was amused to notice that they never actually show one of the robots climbing into the ring between the ropes. I’m guessing they couldn’t make it look right somehow. Wisely, though, they don’t say what year it’s supposed to be, but they mention 2016 as though that was at least a few years ago, so I’m guessing maybe 2020.
Everybody likes Charlie, but somehow that doesn’t seem to help him catch any breaks. Bookie Finn, played by Anthony Mackie from The Adjustment Bureau, sums it up neatly when he tells Charlie that he likes him, but he’s a bad bet. Charlie keeps trying, but he just keeps burning through robots like there’s no tomorrow, and ending up owing large sums of money to various people. He can’t even keep track of everyone he owes. After breaking a very shiny, flashy robot called Noisy Boy that was once a serious contender for the World Robot Boxing title, things can hardly get worse or more complicated for him.
Enter Max, Charlie’s 11-year-old son who Charlie hasn’t seen since he was a tiny baby. Max is played by Dakota Goyo, who was also the young Thor. Max’s mother has just died, and legally, Charlie has custody. Max’s Aunt Debra, played by Hope Davis, wants custody because Charlie is a good-for-nothing, and Charlie agrees. Aunt Debra married a rich man named Marvin, played by James Rebhorn of the aforementioned debacle The Box, and while she really seems to mean well, the way she emphasizes their wealth as the main reason why they should get custody is a little painful. She’s a little snooty, but she loves Max.
Meanwhile, Charlie owes money to his ex-girlfriend and current landlady Bailey, played by Evangeline Lilly of The Hurt Locker. I’m not sure if he lives there or not, because the building Bailey owns is technically a boxing gym, or rather a machine and electronics shop, which is what boxing gyms naturally had to turn into once robots took over, but he owes her rent for something. He seems to sleep in his truck, mostly, so maybe it’s for workspace. Charlie also owes money to Ricky, ex-boxing opponent and all-around snake in the grass. He’s played by Kevin Durand, who was Little John in Robin Hood, and was also in X Men Origins: Wolverine with Hugh Jackman. Hopefully they get along better in real life than in this movie, or I can’t imagine working together is very pleasant. Still, there’s no way Kevin Durand can be as mean as Ricky was, because real people just aren’t that cartoonish in their evil.
Max is one of those mouthy, annoying, stubborn little kids so common to the movies. If more kids were really like that, the human race would’ve gone extinct well before now. Anyway, unlike his dad, he occasionally thinks before he acts, and he likes robot boxing, so he wants in on the family business. When he finds an entire robot buried in the mud by a scrap heap — sorry, Automated Recycling Compound — he thinks this robot, named Atom, can win fights. The fact that it’s an old G2 sparring robot designed only to take a lot of punishment and never really give any out, or that it’s like two feet shorter than any of the other robots out there, doesn’t seem to sink into that annoying, stubborn little head of his. It’s possible he isn’t quite in his right mind since he frequently stays up all night drinking Dr. Pepper.
After that, the film basically turns into Rocky. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, though, since Rocky is listed in the imdb as #218 of the top 250 films of all time. There are definitely worse flicks to turn into. It shamelessly tugs at the heartstrings, gives you several villains to loathe, like the previously mentioned Ricky, plus Tak Mashido and Farra Lemkova, played by Karl Yune and Olga Fonda, respectively, who own and operate Zeus, the undefeated champion. The latter two were reasonably fun to hate, since they were at least polished. Ricky was just about as dumb as a box of rocks, on the other hand, and he was really no fun at all to hate.
I’ll go with three and a half out of five. There are definitely some very fun scenes, like Charlie teaching Atom to fight, and during the fights I think the entire audience was tense and wondering what would happen. I don’t know anything about boxing, but they used motion capture on professional boxers supervised by Sugar Ray Leonard to make the scenes, so they’re probably pretty realistic. There’s an old saying — well, more a spoof of an old saying — that anything one man can imagine, another man can screw up. And, face it, as technology becomes more and more advanced and shiny, it gets easier and easier to screw it up. If the movie’s right, eventually, we might come around full circle and go back to something like the good old days, when two guys would climb into a boxing ring and do their level best to beat each other to a pulp like men, no technology needed.