Real Steel is a hard film to not like, so about half way through I stopped trying and just gave myself permission to enjoy it. Being a serious film critic is one thing. Being a pretentious film snob is something else entirely.
Real Steel reminds me of films like Hoosiers and the original The Karate Kid — films that embrace their “feel good” genre identity and don’t try to hide it in a veneer of seriousness, grit, or realism. Nothing much happens that you don’t anticipate, but it executes the formula well.
Chief among the film’s surprising pleasures is the performance of Dakota Goyo as Max. Generally I find adolescent actor performances too actorly, either maudlinly sentimental or overly clownish. Goyo finds the core of joy in the child’s capacity to become absorbed and in the moment. A scene where he stays up all night and gets a sugar and caffeine rush from his Dr. Pepper product placement manages to come across as believably enthusiastic rather than cinematically manic.
In fact the acting is nice across the board, with each performer being given a stock character–the faithful but wounded female friend, the reckless and irresponsible dad, the castrating sister-in-law–and somehow managing to find nuances or wrinkles in them to convey emotional truth.
Nowhere does the film milk emotions more than in the relationship between father and son, yet even here there are some wrinkles. In many ways Atom, the junk heap robot that Max finds and helps bring back to life (and to the robot boxing ring) allows him to model the parental loyalty and faith that has been lacking in his own life. It is even a cliche to say that films in the mold of Spielberg (he is credited as the film’s producer) are about holes created by the loss of the nuclear family and the non-traditional ways in which they get reconstituted. Even so, there is something about the way that Max reaches beyond his own pain in order to recognize, and help heal, his father’s own, that is apt to bring a few sniffles to even the most hardened of hearts.
Like most sport of competition films, this one moves forward through montage punctuated with and climaxing in the big match. I like the way the film communicates its themes visually and not merely through dialog. The emotional arc intersects with and climaxes at the same time as the sports arc, and I appreciated the way that the film managed to find some way, any way to make it about something more than just the sporting outcome.
This is entertainment, not high art.
I was entertained.