In its first moments Real Steel is bad. We’re talking painfully awkward bad.
It’s partly Kevin Durand’s fault for thinking being in a live-action Disney movie still means you should act like a cartoon. It’s mostly the fact that Hugh Jackman is shoe-horned into such a clichéd character and scenario that you kind of resent Real Steel for making you sit through an extended heavy-handed scene that acts like it’s something new when you know exactly how things are going to play out.
If first impressions matter - which is very much the case with movies – this one sure doesn’t instill a lot of faith in the rest of movie.
Then something happens. Real Steel starts to surprise.
It starts when Charlie (Jackman) finds out his ex-girlfriend has died and he has to attend a court session to determine the custody of Max, his estranged son. Not only does he want nothing to do with his son (predictable), Charlie literally sells Max to his aunt/uncle for $100,000 (less predictable). It’s a shockingly dark act and twist for a crowd-pleasing Disney movie.
From there Real Steel very quickly starts to win you over. It’s not that the central story is really new. What you have heard is true, it is basically Rocky via every live-action Disney movie ever made meets “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots”. You’ll see every story moment coming a mile in advance, but here’s the thing: I’m a firm believer that the familiar done well doesn’t have to be bad thing. Real Steel is proof of that. It may lack originality but it more than makes up for that with an incredible amount of charm and excitement, with just enough character development to make you care about everyone.
In fact, considering this is a movie that would seemingly be about robots punching each other ad nauseam, one of the surprises was how much time Real Steel spent on its characters. It’s much to its benefit, because most movies involving robots just beating each other up constantly (*cough* Transformers *cough*) become incredibly boring and unsatisfying. Real Steel could easily have become that. That’s not to say the fighting sequences aren’t exciting. They are. But they are because as the movie escalates to its inevitable face-offs you find yourself engaged because you’ve become invested in the people and the stakes – regardless of how rote they are.
For all its rote-ness though, what caught me by surprise were … well, the surprises. Part of it was that the film is ultimately so engaging, satisfying, and actually just good-old fashioned fun. It was also that for all its familiarity there are a few minor twists and turns along the way that genuinely added slight deviations to the movie’s formula, many of them admirably to the benefit of the story it was trying to tell about the people – not the robots.
At the end of the day, Real Steel is a familiar but whole satisfying, full movie going experience, in particularly for families looking for a solid rental now that the movie just came out on DVD and Blu-Ray this week. It won’t expose you to anything new, but you won’t have regretted seeing it anyway.