High-concept yet made with a refreshing lack of cynicism, the 2011 should-have-been-blockbuster Real Steel operates as a slickly designed fighting-robot movie that actually pauses for a real and honest story about a father and son trying to reconnect; this is old-school Amblin territory and producer-director Shawn Levy (Stranger Things) really nailed the tone. Written by John Gatins (Flight) with previous drafts done by Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), Les Bohem (Dante’s Peak), and Jeremy Leven (The Notebook), the film was adapted from Richard Matheson’s short story, and I really respected how this wasn’t yet another excuse to “blow shit up real good,” but rather, the creative team told an engaging narrative with fleshed-out characters and included an emotional pull that’s undeniable. It also helps when Hugh Jackman is your star; this guy is never not “on,” and in Real Steel, he dropped one of his best performances as a father who knows he’s capable of being a better person but still wants to be a total bad-ass.
On a technical level, this movie is utterly seamless, with photo-real and totally eye-popping visual effects that were spliced with practically built robots on-set, with an end-result that’s truly spectacular on a conceptual level. The robots fights were inventively shot by cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Avatar) and not over-cut by editor Dean Zimmerman (Stranger Things). And what makes this movie really work is that the filmmakers never overstuffed their plot with needless scenes of idiotic destruction and pointless time-wasting. The action scenes pop but they don’t overtake the scenario, and again, Jackman is so wining in this role that it becomes a movie that’s hard not to root for. Costing $110 million, Real Steel grossed $300 million worldwide, with only $85 million of that coming from American ticket buyers, which is a massive shame as this film is SO much better than so many of the other four-quadrant offerings that have been barfed up on screen of late. I actually wouldn’t bemoan a sequel.