Rocky, a sleeper hit made on a small budget that ended up storming the Oscars, is remembered as the archetypical underdog movie. But Sylvester Stallone’s original script is much darker. Rocky’s now-beloved coach was a racist, and Rocky, instead of losing heroically, ends up throwing the fight in order to pay for Adrien to open a pet store.
It’s a massive shift that would leave the viewer with a nuanced take on Rocky Balboa. But the message Stallone ultimately wanted to give viewers wasn’t that boxing was corrupt, but that underdogs can still win in their own way. To some critics, this made Stallone look like the second coming of Frank Capra. But people love Frank Capra, and people love Rocky. Looking back on the original ending in Entertainment Weekly, Stallone laughed and said, ''Not as dramatic, is it?''
While Real Steel, a 2011 movie directed by Shawn Levy, is technically based on a Richard Matheson short story called “Steel,” it’s essentially a recreation of Rocky. Real Steel shares only the vaguest generalities with its origins, as both stories are about robot boxing.
But “Steel,” which was also adapted for an episode of The Twilight Zone, is cynical about humanity. Levy’s movie is positive and uplifting. On the surface, this might make Real Steel the less interesting movie. But while a few cliches need to be forgiven, Real Steel is a fun, optimistic way to spend two hours.
There are two aspects that make it worth watching: The relationship between Charlie (Hugh Jackman) and Max (Dakota Goyo), and the fighting robots. Thankfully, these elements make up the majority of the movie. The plot of Real Steel isn’t groundbreaking, but the movie is content to be well-told and earnest.
It’s the futuristic year of 2020, and the world is pretty much the same except robot boxing is now a thing. This is a somewhat silly concept, and Real Steel wasn’t helped by the fact that the premier real version of robot fighting at the time of its 2011 release, Battlebots, was appearing on Comedy Central and treated the entire concept as a bit goofy.
But this is a world where robot boxing is a very big deal, to the extent that there’s a widespread robot fighting underground. Charlie is part of that underground, running from fight to fight getting robots destroyed. He gets called into court because an old ex-girlfriend has passed, leaving him in sole custody of their son Max.
Charlie couldn’t care less about Max, but he does care about his rich aunt and uncle claiming custody. And his rich aunt and uncle care about going to Italy, so a reluctant Charlie takes Max on for the summer in exchange for $100,000.
The two of them have a rough start, but have a lot in common. Neither of them trusts easily, and both love robot boxing. But while Charlie had a good reputation as an actual boxer, he’s a nobody now that robots reign supreme.
But the movie doesn’t focus on where Charlie’s been. Instead, it follows his journey with Max and a robot named Atom that they find in a junkyard. Max’s determination to fix Atom starts to grow on Charlie, and the two bond over the robot.
The viewer is repeatedly told that Atom is different than other robots, although it’s not always clear why. While Real Steel mostly pulls from Rocky, it also takes a fair deal from movies like Seabiscuit, where a winner who can’t express themselves is able to bring people together.
This has its charms, especially in an early fight against a mohawked punk named Kingpin (John Gatins) as Charlie and Max learn to work together. The villain is over the top, the growth is palpable, and instead of worrying about the protagonists being in physical danger, the thrill is in seeing them work together.
The robot fights, which Robert Ebert noted are much clearer from a visual perspective than the brawls in Transformers, are eventually able to overcome their silly premise. A deadbeat dad is able to connect with his son, who wants to be a people’s champion, although the movie’s antagonists, a billionaire’s daughter (Olga Fonda) and a reclusive genius (Karl Yune), never get a chance to truly shine. But if Real Steel occasionally falls into a formula, the strength of its performances and fun of its fights make it work.
Real Steel is streaming on HBO Max.