Fifty years ago, Richard Matheson wrote a piece entitled, “Steel,” for the television series, The Twilight Zone. It tells the story of manager and ex-boxer Sam “Steel” Kelly, played by Lee Marvin, who handles a washed-up B-2 robot boxer named Battling Maxo. Maxo needs parts badly to continue fighting, and indeed, the robot is in no condition to match up in the next contest it is scheduled for. Kelly knows this all too well, but the fight game is in his blood and his heart. He could no more quit than stop breathing, nor will he. Instead, he will mask himself with enough of his mechanical combatant as he can and go into the ring himself. No surprise, he is beaten badly, but the appearance fee for the fight will pay for trigger springs and oil paste, maybe just enough to get Battling Maxo working and fighting again. This was a memorable episode, one of the best The Twilight Zone ever produced.
Fast forward half a century and we find the movie, Real Steel, based on the same Matheson story. The names have changed; Hugh Jackman is boxing manager Charlie Kenton and there are additional plot points and back story, which include Charlie’s checkered past and an abandoned and forgotten son. Also, the automatons who fight now are huge metal behemoths that no man could survive in a ring encounter. Charlie has leveraged the rediscovery of his son in order to get enough scratch to get back in the fight game after his last robot was trashed … by a bull! His new acquisition looks promising, but mostly owing to Charlie’s less-than-thoughtful management style, gets reduced to spare parts. Crawling back from that loss, Charlie and his son stumble onto a sparring robot – “Atom” – with a surprising feature: the ability to perfectly mimic or “shadow” the movements of another. This ability is first used as pre-fight entertainment, but later comes into critical usage in a fight which seems like mechanized recreation of the first Rocky Balboa – Apollo Creed brawl. After a fashion, Charlie Kenton is almost as much in the ring as Lee Marvin was 50 years before him.
Ultimately, Real Steel is not enough grit, too much feel-good and too much Disney for me, and I have a tough time recommending as is. However, it at least tries to maintain some fidelity to the original idea Richard Matheson penned for Rod Serling’s classic series. Whoever came up with the idea of the “shadow” function deserves a tip of the cap, along with the idea that robot fighters had gotten away from human pugilistic techniques. This oversight leaves an opening as blatant as not keeping up your left, an opening filled by the combination of Charlie Kenton’s boxing savvy and Atom’s mimicry.
Real Steel doesn’t quite work for me … but a little tweaking and maybe it could have.
Completely agree. Too much Hannah Montanna and not enough Tarantino.
I don't know about Tarantino (Kill Bill was fun, but I don't think that attitude would work here). What was really needed was a bit more of the dark flavor of the original Twilight Zone episode. Predictably, the worst part of it was the kid. He was WAY too cocky for being out of his element, but again, that's Disney for you.
According to IMDB.com, a sequel's in the works. It'd be nice if they could bring a bit more real world to Real Steel, but I'm not taking any bets.