Real Steel really is Rock em’ Sock em’ Robots: The Movie. Some have thrown that comparison at the film as an insult, but I mean it as a complement. Rock em’ Sock em’ Robots is a relic from a time of simpler fun. A time when all kids needed to be entertained was some cheap plastic figures with buttons that made them randomly punch each other. Let’s face it, that game was really just one step up from playing in the dirt with sticks and rocks. Real Steel is that same kind of fun.
When director Shawn Levy’s robots step into the ring, there’s something almost magical about it. Any time there’s a robot on screen, this movie works. It has energy, it has excitement, it has your attention. Unfortunately, whenever the movie ends up in a scene without a robot in frame, it’s a disaster. When the robots are off camera, the whole thing turns into an unbearable slog burdened by a series of pointless characters (like the one played by Evangeline Lilly), and a series of awkward, badly written dialogue scenes which go on forever. The result is an uneven film which is at least thirty minutes too long and contains no fewer than three characters which wouldn’t be missed if taken out of the story. All Real Steel ever needed was Hugh Jackman, a kid, and a robot.
Jackman plays a long in the tooth ex-boxer, out of the game, and looking for a way back into it using metal avatars. There’s something almost beautiful about that, and Real Steel contains at least one scene worthy of the concept, in which Jackman’s character stands beside the ring furiously punching at nothing while his robot stands in front of him aping his moves to destroy an opponent. Jackman, though stuck working from one of the worst scripts ever written, approaches the film with a level of enthusiasm it doesn’t really deserve. That enthusiasm isn’t enough to carry the movie, but while Hugh’s standing there destroying the air with his fists in the heat of battle, the robots punch all the problems out of this story for him.
It doesn’t matter that the script’s a piece of garbage, because script really has nothing to do with those boxing scenes, and that’s what we’re there to see. That’s all Levy and Danny Elfman, who delivers a perfectly heroic score to match Real Steel’s unbridled enthusiasm for metal monsters creating mayhem. Everything with the robots works, and everything else doesn’t. Shawn has proven himself the perfect director for this kind of movie, after his surprisingly fun series of Night at the Museum movies. He makes family movies the way they used to be done, back in Disney’s heyday when they were churning out gems like The Absent Minded Professor or The Shaggy Dog instead of horrible movies starring The Rock. Levy seems to get it and because he gets it, manages to make robot boxing every bit as great a piece of family fun as it ought to be.
Take a pair of scissors to this script, give us a shorter movie, and Real Steel would be all fun instead of occasional fun punctuated by awful script moments. This could have been another Night at the Museum, instead it’s a flawed family film which will definitely be twice as good on home video, where you’ll be able to hit fast forward any time Evangeline Lilly shows up. Real Steel’s at its best when it keeps it simple. Ignore the story, enjoy the good stuff.