Rocky the Robot

Real Steel: adapted by John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, and Jeremy Leven from the short story “Steel” by Richard Matheson; directed by Shawn Levy; starring Hugh Jackman (Charlie Kenton), Dakota Goyo (Max Kenton), Evangeline Lilly), and Kevin Durand (Ricky) (2011): Surprisingly pleasant, oddly low-key CGI-laden movie about, um, robot boxing.

This one falls into the category of ‘unannounced alternate history movie,’ as by 2014 robot boxing technology was already capable of making the robot star of our film, Atom, and dropping him into an environment in which there was already some sort of robot boxing circuit. This seems unlikely to happen in the next 2 years.

Set some time in the 2020’s, Real Steel is also Bradburyesque in that the one altered technological detail doesn’t seem to have had any effect on anything else and, indeed, seems to have propelled history backwards to some occasionally bucolic 1950’s America. Of course, there’s also urban robot boxing and, at one point, robot boxing in an abandoned zoo inhabited by kinder, gentler extras from the Mad Max movies.

Anyway, washed-up real boxer Hugh Jackman is also washed up as a robot boxer. Then a former girlfriend dies. Jackman’s 11-year-old son shows up. The kid’s aunt and uncle want him. But the uncle doesn’t want him until after their Italian holiday. Kid reluctantly goes with Hugh, who accepts money to relinquish all parental rights to the kid. Kid gets enthralled by robot boxing. Kid accidentally discovers a second-generation robot boxer, whom he names Atom, buried in a robot boxing junkyard.

Man, a lot of this alternate Earth’s economy seems to be built on robot boxing!

Jackman and the kid learn some life lessons. Much robot boxing ensues.

In the manner of a lot of contemporary movies, Real Steel is too loud, too frenetic, and feels the need to hammer home every character moment with all the subtlety of a robot punch to the groin. I’d expect nothing less from Shawn Levy, director of the equally frenetic Night in the Museum movies. Really, several robot punches to the groin. Still, there’s something weirdly charming about Hugh Jackman playing this dumb (his character makes Wolverine look like a brain surgeon) and a movie with this many effects having absolutely nothing to do with saving the world, the universe, or even a continent.

The whole thing is very loosely based on the early 1950’s short story “Steel” by Richard Matheson, whom you may remember from other such recent loosely based films as The Box and I Am Legend, along with earlier, more faithfully adapted films that include The Incredible Shrinking Man (itself loosely re-adapted as The Incredible Shrinking Woman), The Legend of Hell House, and Spielberg’s brilliant, ultra-faithful Duel. Of course, most of the faithful adaptations had screenplays written by Matheson.

For the record, Real Steel uses the idea of robot boxing and a down-on-his-luck robot trainer, and nothing else. The story was earlier adapted into an episode of The Twilight Zone. I’m starting to think Matheson’s work may outsurvive almost everyone else’s in one form or another. Lightly recommended.

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