Distill Rocky and The Champ, add a dash of The Rumble in the Jungle, shake well and serve in larger-than-life rock ’em sock ’em robots. That’s basically what you get with Real Steel (2011), and somehow all those second-hand pieces come together in a rousing (if awfully inevitable) underdog story.
Ostensibly based on the same short story that spawned the original Twilight Zone episode “Steel,” it takes no more than the basic premise (a future where human boxing has been replaced with robots, a down-at-heels former boxer trying to get by with failing equipment) and spins a story of father/son bonding and a real jerk of a would-be dad getting a shot at redemption.
Hugh Jackman really plays up the “jerk” part of his character in the opening scenes, ducking creditors, welching on bad bets, and in general letting his arrogance get in the way of his shots at success. That is, until he’s forced to be a father to the son (Dakota Goyo) he left behind long ago, a kid whose justified anger at all his surviving parental figures makes him a force to be reckoned. And when the kid rescues an old model ‘bot that has just as much pluck as the humans, Dad slowly takes his place in his son’s corner as advisor, inspiration and even robot trainer.
Director Shawn Levy leaves the familiar waters of high-concept comedy for family drama set against a vaguely futuristic backdrop of robot action from the dregs of fleapits to the main event of a championship bout. Somehow, he makes it all work as a satisfying experience. For all the dazzle of the mechanical dance, Levy commits himself to the human drama and delivers an old-fashioned piece of storytelling.
Evangeline Lilly plays the boy’s mother and Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand, and Hope Davis costar.
It was nominated for an Oscar for its visual effects.
On the Blu-ray and DVD from Walt Disney/Touchstone, director Shawn Levy really pitches in for supplements. I don’t just mean he tosses off a commentary track and sits down for interviews, all pretty much standard extras for blockbuster movies on DVD and Blu-ray. Levy really attempts to engage the audience with his commentary and take the viewers behind-the-scenes of the production process in “The Making of Metal Valley,” a 15-minute featurette that focuses on getting just a few seconds of film. “Building the Bots” shows how and why physical robots were built for the film and used alongside CGI (brought to life by remote control “puppeteers,” and it looks like everyone on the production wanted a shot at controlling these things) and there is a blooper reel on the DVD.
The Blu-ray adds “Countdown to the Fight: The Charlie Kenton Story,” a mock featurette on the life story of Hugh Jackman’s former boxer turned robot jockey, and “Sugar Ray Leonard: Cornerman’s Champ,” on the film’s boxing advisor. It also has the “Second Screen” experience, which invites viewers to views supplements via laptop or iPad, after downloading an app and synching up the device. Yeah, it’s more complicated than it needs to be, and it makes it hard to find the non-“Second Screen” option to see the interactive audio-video track, with Levy’s commentary and short behind-the-scenes video pieces interspersed through the film.