From Warrior to Real Steel... both ostensibly sports films, but both very, very different approaches. Where Warrior strove for a more grounded (though still heightened) world, Real Steel features boxing robots. However, in a further congruence both films have a surprisingly effective emotional core and both feature broken families, with an emphasis on flawed father figures.
In Real Steel that flawed father is Hugh Jackman's washed up boxer, Charlie Kenton. Back when boxing was still featuring human boxers, he was an up-and-coming star. With the advent of robot boxing though, his star quickly fades and he finds himself dragging a rusting old robot around the fringes of the sport, constantly trying to stay a few steps ahead of his creditors. This ragged existence of his is interrupted when his ex-girlfriend dies and Charlie has to take some sort of responsibility for his son - a son he doesn't know or want.
The extent to which the film goes to make Jackman's Charlie a complete asshole of a dad is actually really stunning and brave, especially in a Disney family film. Charlie Kenton is not only a guy who has had nothing to do with his 11 year-old son Max but who actively sells the kid to his ex-girlfriend's sister. Charlie needs money, the kid's aunt's husband has money and so Charlie brokers a deal. I mean, this guy is an asshole. But, y'know, at the same time he's Hugh "Wolverine" Jackman, a man with a very high charisma quotient. So Charlie still scrapes by as a charming sonuvabitch. The child-trading aside, Charlie has one summer to spend with his son before the smart-ass tyke goes to live with his aunt. So Charlie, not wanting some annoying kid slowing him up, tries to dump the kid with another ex. But Max is too smart for that; he's big in to robot boxing and wants to spend some time on the road with his dad learning about it. They're both incredibly clear-eyed about the father-son relationship - Max tumbles to his dad's selling of him fairly quickly - but the two of them come to know, appreciate and love one another.
Yep, Real Steel is not just a movie about robots pounding seven shades of crap out of each other (helloooooo Transformers 3!) but features an emotional "A" story about an estranged father and son bonding. And director Shawn Levy - the man behind such classic "comedies" as Cheaper by the Dozen and Just Married - manages to not club the audience over the head with enforced pathos and obvious emotional manipulation. It seems when he isn't troubling over the "comedy", Levy can get some emotional honesty from a film. Or, the fact that screenwriter John Gatins is no stranger to uplifting sports movies - Coach Carter, Dreamer, Hardball - could also have helped, even if none of them ever really caught on. In fact, it seems like Gatins has only written sports films; know your niche I guess. Through whatever thrice-damned alchemy they used, they crucially never overstep into the overwrought or cloying sentimentality that could have otherwise crippled the film.
As Max's bot Atom - old, clunky, can take a beating but can't dish it out - progresses successfully through bout after bout, the plucky trio catch the eye of the robot boxing big leagues. Max is a smart and fired up kid - he won't sell Atom and he won't quit. He's a little bit of a jerk, but understandably so - his father did walk out on him and then try to sell him. He's also smart - smarter than his dad, as is constantly shown throughout the film - but he's also still just a goofy kid; he's fascinated by the robots because, c'mon! What kid wouldn't be? The connection Max makes to this old sparring bot he digs up is realistically childlike and unforced. A lot of this is down to Dakota Goyo's portrayal of Max and the easy rapport he has going on with Jackman. As someone who is more accustomed to the annoying kid characters that are so obviously designed to try and fit a "cool, hip and outsider" mold and just don't, Max is something of a relief.
Real Steel is far from perfect; I wouldn't call it a great piece of cinema and it makes no pretense of striving for that. I would, however, say that the film and it's makers are upfront and honest about what it is and what it's goals are. Much like one of Charlie's robots, Real Steel is a pieced together machine of other films. But the machine works so well, with a plucky trio at the heart of it all, you barely notice the gears.