Hugh Jackman stars as Charlie Kenton, a prodigious former boxer travelling from one state fair to another to take part in robot boxing matches. The year is 2020, and robot boxing has taken over human boxing as a less violent alternative. When we’re introduced to Charlie we find him one step ahead of the loansharks chasing him, and several steps behind a robot boxing victory as he trades one bot for a new debt with each bout he loses.
After the death of his ex-girlfriend, Charlie ends up taking care of the estranged son he had by her for the summer. The boy, Max, proves to be just as stubborn as his father, and soon firmly places himself by Charlie’s side in the robot boxing scene. Long story short, they bond while training an old robot named Atom that Max discovers, and as they realise a winning formula with the robot, make it to the professional league and almost win against the reigning undefeated champion.
I’ll start with the bad first, just to get it out of the way: you can see how everything’s going to turn out within the first half of the film, and will spend the second half of it just waiting for it all to happen. Also, just being nitpicky, but I had some issues with the physics regarding Atom’s behaviour: having been set up to have a shadow mode, the robot mirrors the actions of the person standing in front of it. I’m not sure it always followed its own logic, sometimes being able to mimic actions even from a person standing behind it. I’ll attribute this though, to well-intentioned producers wanting to tighten the action. There’s a distinct dollop of product placement, to the extent that the film’s scenes are polarised between promoting Hewlett-Packard as a cutting-edge technology provider and promoting Dr Pepper as the soda of choice for father-son bonding sessions. And most bothersome of all, Atom is hinted at throughout the movie as maybe being a little more than just an old sparring bot, but never addressed. Its backstory is a loose end that I hope will be addressed if they ever put a sequel out (though I hope they don’t).
On to the good: Mauro Fiore‘s camerawork is beautifully well-thought. Danny Elfman‘s score, organic and uplifting where it had to be. All-round good acting performances from Jackman, Dakota Goyo as Max, Evangeline Lilly as Charlie’s long-time friend and romantic interest Bailey, and a surprising one I particularly enjoyed from Kevin Durand as an antagonistic figure from Charlie’s past. I loved how the film alternated between Charlie as the protagonist and Max as the protagonist, establishing multiple relationship threads between Charlie, Max, Bailey and Atom. I loved the juxtaposition of the warmth and optimism of these developing relationships, almost always shown in bright daylight, contrasting with the cold, “real steel” of the competitive robot boxing arenas which always occurred at night. And the robo-fighting was highly entertaining.
All in all, like its three main characters, this movie does not know the meaning of “undercard”; it knows it isn’t the best but its real steel will warm your heart trying.
Director: Shawn Levy
Producers: Shawn Levy, Susan Montford & Don Murphy
Screenwriter: John Gatins
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand