Heartwarming. Not what you’d expect from a futuristic story about robot boxing. But that is exactly how I’d describe Real Steel. In the not-too-distant future, human boxers have been replaced by robotic counterparts. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a former boxer who now promotes robot fights. Plagued by bad luck, he’s about ready to chuck it all when his “luck” changes. This good luck comes in the form of a son (Dakota Goyo) he hasn’t seen in years. When his ex-wife dies in a car accident, custody of their son Max falls to him. Charlie offers to relinquish his claim on the boy in exchange for a payout from his ex-sister-in-law and her wealthy husband. With visions of a new ’bot filling his head, he reluctantly agrees to take Max for one summer before turning him over to his aunt and uncle. He even tries to pawn Max off on a friend (Evangeline Lilly) while he takes his new robot on the fight circuit but Max is having none of it. Real stand-up guy, that Charlie.
Over the course of the summer, Max and Charlie fall out of one adventure and into the next. Charlie’s overconfidence and ego cost them their robot in its first fight; a harrowing night in the junkyard nearly kills them both; the antiquated ’bot Max stumbles across turns out to be something special; a showdown in the rough world of underground boxing shows Charlie that his son is made of tougher stuff than he realized; and slowly but surely, Charlie and Max develop the beginnings of a beautiful relationship. Max and his robot quickly go from little-known underdogs to the people’s champions but at the last minute, Charlie chucks the whole thing. Not for selfish reasons, as you would have expected at the beginning, but with the boy’s best interests at heart. This destroys their budding camaraderie and Max returns to his aunt and uncle with his faith in other people and Charlie in particular all but destroyed.
Charlie’s redemption, a rebuilt relationship, a touch of romance, and a dramatic final battle – this climax has it all. At its heart, this is an underdog story. Actually it’s a story of three underdogs: Charlie, a washed-up boxer; Atom, a discarded sparring ’bot; and Max, a scrawny, scrappy 11-year-old kid. Add in a redemption arc and the value of family and you would think this is your typical feel-good flick. At some level, I suppose that’s true. But on a deeper level, this is so much more than that. Real Steel is a moving, powerful story that deserves to be remembered for many years to come.