...shining light on the media, one review at a time
Based on the advertising campaign for Real Steel, one might’ve been wondering what Hugh Jackman was doing in a kid-oriented movie. The preview trailer gave glimpses of a feel-good story with Jackman playing an unusual role of father to a young boy. Don’t let the presence of the kid fool you—a look under the glossy finish of Real Steel’s high production values reveals a film that is anything but family-friendly.
Life is no picnic for robot boxing manager, Charlie Kenton. Though he lives in the not-too-distant future, when robot boxing is the most popular sport, it’s a hard and unforgiving business that seems to lick Charlie even worse than his mangled robots. Nevertheless, Charlie still enjoys his independent existence and the never-ending struggle to get rich and win big.
The news that Charlie’s ex-girlfriend has died barely causes a blip on his self-centered radar, even though he fathered her son. Charlie has apparently never seen his son, Max, and isn’t even sure how old the boy is. None of this causes a twinge of guilt for Charlie as he goes to eagerly sign away his parental rights to Max’s Aunt Debra. As soon as Charlie sees that Debra is married to a wealthy man, Charlie cooks up a scheme to get the cash he desperately needs to buy a new robot and escape the threats of some vindictive money lenders. The plan? He sells his kid.
At least that’s how Max terms the transaction when he hears of it from his father. Charlie strikes a bargain with Debra’s husband, who is fine with adopting Max, as long as it’s after the couple’s planned vacation to Italy. He’s willing to pay dearly for the time with his wife in Italy, so he hands Charlie a load of cash in exchange for Charlie’s promise to watch the boy for one summer before giving up custody permanently to Debra. As far as Charlie is concerned, demanding payment from his son’s adoptive parents is a no-brainer opportunity that has nothing to do with conscience.
No surprise that Max is more than a little resentful of his father, and Charlie does little to earn his son’s love or respect. Yet this is not a case of an innocent victim being corrupted by Charlie’s influence. For despite the fact that Charlie was completely absent for Max’s eleven years of life, Max is every bit his father’s son, in mostly negative ways. Max says that his mother was “the coolest,” but one has to wonder about the environment that produced this kid who is stubborn, self-obsessed, disrespectful and disobedient, kind only when it gets him what he wants, and cusses seemingly every three sentences. These are traits Charlie exemplifies even more than his son, but they aren’t all hereditary.
The attitude that can be blamed at least partially on Charlie’s influence is the bitterness that Max has toward his dad. Absent all Max’s life, Charlie shows no regret on meeting Max and makes it clear to the boy that he is not wanted. In fact, most of Charlie’s “parenting” is like a dramatization of how not to raise a child. Some of Charlie’s actions are clearly presented as negative, but others are unfortunately condoned.
[SPOILER WARNING FOR ALL THAT FOLLOWS] For example, Charlie eventually realizes he was wrong to abandon his son, but he continues to teach and encourage his son’s disrespectful behavior, foul mouth, greed, and continually subjects Max to the depraved and dangerous environment of the robot boxing venues. This robot boxing world provides most of the film’s additional harmful content. At every match, the crowd is composed of bloodthirsty, screaming, and spitting fans, with plenty of scantily-clad women among them. Rude behavior and a beer in the hand seems to be the mark of a robot boxing enthusiast, as well as a thirst for violence. And physical annihilation for entertainment is the name of the game in this so-called sport.
At one point, Charlie explains to Max that human boxing died out because people wanted “more carnage,” and “true, no holds barred violence.” These crowds get their wish in the sport of robot boxing, which features human-like robots who pummel each other without mercy, usually to the “death” (destruction of the robot). Though the boxers are not human, these bouts clearly feed a lust for violence and aggression among the thousands of rabid fans. The robot boxing matches, then, are among the most disturbing sequences, as the action in the arena and the sanguinary screams of the crowd are far too reminiscent of the atmosphere that likely accompanied gladiator fights at the Colosseum and other such events. This is the world into which we get to see an eleven-year-old boy be indoctrinated by his father.
If the filmmakers presented the violent and dark environment of robot boxing as negative, they could have a chance at redeeming this element of the story. Instead, Real Steel tries to convey that robot boxing is cool, appealing, and the place to be to achieve wealth, fame, and power. Oh, and also to get a better relationship with a deadbeat dad. That little emotional add-on isn’t enough to make up for the damage done by the rest of the film, in which even the supposedly conservative Aunt Debra agrees to let Max continue his involvement in the debauching world of robot boxing.
Real Steel’s plentiful disturbing content unfortunately mars what could have been a touching and even uplifting story of change, forgiveness, and love. There are moments of charm and humor throughout the film, as well as a solid emotional premise (despite the stretches of the rest of the plot). One’s heart aches for Max when he discovers a robot to call his own and tries to make of the machine both the friend and the father he so desperately needs.
Part of the poignancy of these moments can be credited to the standout performance by Dakota Goyo as Max. Showing a rare emotional range and authenticity for such a young actor, Goyo holds his own against powerhouse actor Hugh Jackman, who gives yet another strong showing as Charlie. Evangeline Lilly rounds out this impressive threesome, bringing layers and a needed relatable quality to her limited role as Charlie’s love interest.
Along with the top-quality acting, Real Steel uses special effects seamlessly and imaginatively, blending them with good cinematography to tell an overall well written, skillfully directed film. The production quality is everything one would expect from a big-budget film, but all those resources amount to waste in this movie that doesn’t say anything much at all—certainly nothing substantive or worthwhile.
In the end, Max gets a real father who can almost say he loves his son, a father whose greatest demonstration of love is to give his son whatever he wants, even when it’s not at all good for the boy. If Real Steel is the family-friendly, feel-good story of our day, we’re in trouble.