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Movie Review: The Mega-Schmaltzy Americana of Real Steel

A smoke-spewing, gas-guzzling Hummer of a movie, Real Steel is just the crass, supersize metaphor America deserves. In the dubiously near future, old-fashioned boxing is over, robot fighting is the next big thing, and Hugh Jackman, in full-blown Oklahoma! galumphing-galoot mode, is Charlie, an old-fashioned heart-bigger-than-his-brain hero. He coulda been a contender, but the blue-collar ex-boxer from Pennsylvania’s steel belt is all washed up, a gambler who can’t quit going all-in as he hustles bots in boxing matches, mashing buttons on a game controller like an ADD child.

Our robot hero is the faceless yet blue-eyed robot named Atom, which Charlie’s son Max digs out from a junkyard filled with the industrial detritus of the American Century. The bot possesses two skills that separate it from the rest of the spare-parts bin: Atom can take a beating and keep on ticking. And it has pizzazz. As Gypsy Rose sang, “You gotta have a gimmick.” So Max teaches Atom to do a little shimmy-shake dance, Apollo Creed–style (which includes, of course, the robot), and Atom and Max go viral before they earn a reputation. Hard work and showbiz, baby, that’s the American way.

This decent blue-collar steel-belt robot clangs and clashes with ’bots controlled by backwards agrarian rednecks, comical Thunderdome anarchists, and other threats to the republic before finally facing off with the true competition, a foreigner: Zeus, a black-clad, high-tech, efficient, brilliantly constructed robot programmed by a Japanese designer and funded by an ice-queen oligarch played by the Russian model Olga Fonda. Like Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago, Zeus represents the triumph of cold science and America’s heavily accented enemies. But what Zeus doesn’t have is good ol’ red-blooded gumption and a family that loves him.

Shawn Levy, the auteur behind the thoroughly mediocre Pink Panther remake, Night at the Museum, and Date Night, finally comes alive with this film, embracing his mega-schmaltzy inner Michael Bay. Or maybe he should’ve just been making feature-length Budweiser commercials all along. There’s no camera that can’t be mounted on a spiraling crane, no mise-en-scène that can’t be improved by a shower of sparks, no Big Moment that might not be better in slo-mo. He bathes amber waves of grain in golden light, sends trucks down dusty dirt roads, and, yes, rips off the monumental monumentalism of Rocky. Everything is big, and the fight scenes are especially big. The only problem is that the fighters are machines that can’t sense pain. It’s shot with all the ponderous drama of Raging Bull when it’s really the best Battlebots episode ever.

His film is so overstuffed with overblown themes that it’s as incoherent as a Super Bowl halftime show and just as hammily patriotic. But, as far as I can make out, the real conflict isn’t between Atom and Zeus. It’s a war between two ideas of American success, represented by father and son: There’s the irrational exuberance of the unjustifiably confident Charlie, who can’t help but bet big because he’s convinced of his own American exceptionalism. And then there’s the prudent diligence of stubborn Max, who digs the robot out of a mudslide mountain with his own bare hands, and preaches the virtues of persistence and pluck. In the end, Charlie’s get-rich-quick, boom-economy bravado fails and, in this newer, more austere age of international competition, Max’s hard-work ethos prevails.

Well, sort of. What really happens is that America, represented by this robot, reclaims his position as the surging underdog. A recent survey found that about half of all Americans believe that China will surpass the United States as Earth’s reigning superpower. (GM already sold Hummer, the ultimate bubble-years SUV, to them.) This film heartily agrees. How can you not root for the comeback kid?

This is not, like Harry Potter or Superman, some rags-to-riches tale about an orphan who’s actually a prince in exile. And it’s not, like The Matrix or Spider-Man, a zero-to-hero story about a dork who realizes he can be a superpowered savior. It’s more of a throwback to Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick, a rags-to-middle-class-respectability tale about the humble joy of old-fashioned decency. We’re number two! We’re number two!

Photo: DreamWorks II Distribution Co.