I’m starting to think that it is impossible for Hollywood to make a movie about giant robots without making all the human characters unlikeable jackasses. About twenty minutes into "Real Steel," the father-son bonding robot boxing movie, I realized that both father Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) and son Max (Dakota Goyo) were both going to be unlikeable brats who only knew how to communicate through playground taunting. And everyone they interact with, with the exception of the love interest played by Evangeline Lily, are also unlikeable brats. As a result, what should have been a fun, feel-good family film is more like watching a couple of really badly-behaved, overgrown eight-year olds play Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots for two hours.
I’m still not sure how the filmmakers managed to screw this up so badly. The plot should have been foolproof. In the future, human boxers have been replaced with robots, and Charlie is a former boxer-turned-robot-wrangler. Faced with too many debts and shrinking opportunities, he decides to accept a bribe from his ex-in-laws to turn over custody of his estranged 11-year-old son Max to their care. Of course, he also has to take the kid for the summer, who is as hostile and suspicious as you might expect. However Max turns out to love robot boxing, and the two eventually bond over the sport and help a forgotten underdog miracle bot named Atom rise to glory. A little father-son reconciliation, some robot fight scenes, yadda yadda. You already know how this movie is supposed to go.
What kills it is the spectacularly crummy attitudes of the characters. Max isn’t just a smart-aleck kid, but an insufferable little twerp. Charlie isn’t just a hustler and careless jerk, which I know the formula demands to some extent, but a short-sighted, self-destructive idiot who is so enormously irresponsible that I doubt anyone in real life would let a child anywhere near him. It was painful to watch an actor as likable and affable as Hugh Jackman playing this lunkhead. The villains are cartoonish and dull. Evangeline Lily is just there to look pretty. And Anthony Mackie, playing one of Charlie’s only remaining friends, is just there to be black. I’m not kidding.
I’ve seen some cynical movies before, but this one really made me cringe. It felt like whoever was doing the scripting was in deep denial about the fact that they were writing a family film that required the characters to deal with icky things like emotion and attachment. And they were so terrified of showing any kind of sentiment, they did away with any charm or humor or wonder that could have been drawn out of this story. You can tell they tried to make the characters edgy and rebellious and non-conformist, but just ended up making them jerks. It’s only when the sports movie formula fully takes over and the film is running on autopilot in the third act, that there’s a grudging attempt to have father and son actually display any attachment to each other. And of course it doesn’t work, because the film has spent the previous two acts trying to convince everyone that these people are too cool for that kind of nonsense.
What really gets me is that the potential for a much better film is right there. The special effects in "Real Steel" are fantastic, and all the fighting robots look great Their brawls are a lot more fun to watch than the overcomplicated set-pieces staged by the Transformers. But just as the humans suffer for lack of attention and development, so do their robots. The "Real Steel" robots are just ordinary machines, armor shells with hardly a whisper of any soul. It’s suggested that Atom might have some awareness, but nothing ever comes of it. The film isn’t really about the bots. As a result, the film feels empty because there’s no emotional heart to the story, no one you really feel like rooting for.
It worries me that we have so many of these movies like "Real Steel" and "Transformers" and the Adam Sandler comedies that are being sold as family entertainment, but feature lead characters who are all deeply resentful, mean-spirited, and honestly pretty awful people. Is this an attempt by the filmmakers to give their desired audiences what they think they want? To try and make these characters more relatable? Is Charlie Kenton really anybody’s idea of a hero? If so, Hollywood and the state of mainstream film just got a lot more depressing.