Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) owes some people a lot of money, but he is confident he has a way of earning it and saving his skin. That is because he owns a robot, one of those fighting machines that took over from human boxers when the sport was judged too dangerous; Charlie used to be a boxer himself, so he knows all the moves and can translate that into the remote controls the competitors use to guide their robots. However, he is a long way from the major contests in Las Vegas, and for the moment has to content himself with fighting a bull...
That's right, bullfighting in a Hollywood movie made in the twenty-first century, and a family movie at that, all the violence on display being excused for the younger audiences due to most of it being carried out with computer graphics and animatronic puppets. This was the film which became known in some quarters as Over the Top with boxing robots, thanks to the essential plot of a fighter bonding with his estranged son being adapted to Richard Matheson's original story about the mechanical marvels, only here it wasn't Sylvester Stallone arm wrestling which concerned us, and neither was the kid unfortunately named Mike Hawk (say it out loud).
The kid in question here (Dakota Goyo) is someone Charlie works out a way of getting money from when his mother - and Charlie's long lost ex - dies and the boy's aunt (Hope Davis) wants custody. He is only too happy to do so, being an irresponsible absent father, so for a start you can see where this is headed from miles away, as it turns out the manner in which he gets his money is to look after the child for the summer. An actual deadbeat dad probably wouldn't even do that, even if it did mean a fifty thousand dollar bonus, so junior should have counted himself lucky, though he certainly doesn't act like it, seeing straight through his parent's plotting.
What Charlie really wants is another robot - that bull ending up the victor during the tussle with the last one - so uses his newfound cash to purchase a Japanese model which looks impressive enough, but somehow is not underdog material, the sort of thing Real Steel makes it plain is its stock in trade. Therefore it is offered punishing treatment in an underground match, which lands Charlie and his son picking through a junkyard for spare parts where the boy uncovers in dramatic fashion an old model of robot which he feels shows promise. As with many of these films, sci-fi or not, predictability looms large, so every successive argument is somewhat wearying and harder to sit through as the plot progesses.
That said, for much of this, although it wasn't based on a computer game, it did represent a successful way of adapting one to the big screen, artistically and financially, because if you could ignore the frankly boring relationship business the action sequences were everything such an adaptation could be. Granted, you had to imagine a world where playing on a console was the equivalent of heavyweight boxing, which explains why Jackman was so musclebound when all he needed to do was stand on the sidelines and order the robot about, and the fact that someone like Christopher Mintz-Plasse would have been a more convincing gamer at this level than Hugh, but for a film which translates the thrill of beating the latest level of your favourite pasttime to a cinematic form, Real Steel felt authentic. It was just a pity the solid physicality of the battles was let down by the sludgy emotion of the rest of it, rendering this a film in two minds about its style. Music by Danny Elfman.