Something about Real Steel
rubs me the wrong way. At the time of its release, I thought everyone would pick up on it. Hardly anyone did.
But for a supposed kid’s movie, Real Steel is shockingly violent. Cannibalistic, even. It's one of the meanest "family" films I can remember seeing. As opposed to Michael Bay’s sadistic Transformers films, which rarely pretend to be aimed at kids, Shawn Levy’s film seemed tailored made for a general audience. The components are in place for a legitimately heartwarming sports drama, from an underdog “David” robot facing off against massive “Goliaths” to a father-son dynamic that should have played to Hugh Jackman’s charismatic strengths as an actor.
So what’s with all of the rampant bloodlust?
With Real Steel making its way to DVD and Blu-ray, I wanted to dedicate a When Can I Watch column to Levy’s film in case parents hadn’t yet seen it and were wondering if it’s appropriate. Plus, with plans for a sequel already underway, this appears to be a franchise that isn’t going away.
So, let’s count the Rocky clichés, go the distance and figure out when you can watch Real Steel with your kids.
Red Flags: “They couldn’t give the people what they really wanted: True, no-holds-barred violence.”
Real Steel takes place in a not-so-distant future, where savage robot boxing has become our nation’s pastime. The above quote surfaces when Jackman’s down-and-out trainer, Charlie, explains the evolution of robot boxing to his estranged son, Max (Dakota Goyo), as they scrounge for replacement parts in a robot graveyard.
It encapsulates everything that I found wrong with Levy’s futuristic world.
Human boxing, we’re told, fell out of favor with everyday sports fans. “People wanted more carnage, more show,” Jackman says.
Disturbing. But the fans in the stands of the Real Steel fights reflect that change in culture, and it badly colors Levy’s product.
“Kill, kill, kill,” a rabid crowd chants during one of the movie’s early backyard “wrasslin” events, and the sheer ferocity of the demand for carnage caught me off guard. It also made me very happy I didn’t bring my sons to the preview screening. The anger escalates during a later sequence at The Zoo, where Road Warrior cast-offs scream like wild animals for robot “blood” during unsanctioned battles.
“But they’re only robots,” I can hear you saying.
Maybe. But the characters attempt to make human connections with these sentient beings, and they’re rewarded by watching their fighters lose limbs, “blood” (or oil, which spills out of boxers like guts) and, ultimately, their lives. I’m not saying this wouldn’t be a relatively unique premise for a futuristic thriller. Just don’t package it as The Karate Kid with machines.
The overall tone of Levy’s film is oddly aggressive, cold, and just plain nasty. It’s like the Limp Bizkit of kid movies. “You’ve been working with those robots so long, you’ve become one,” Hope Davis tells Jackman’s character as he attempts to renounce legal rights to his only son. The movie adopts that detached demeanor, and it will keep me from showing Real Steel to my own kids any time soon.
Green Lights: “As much as I like you, you’re a bad bet, brother.”
But maybe your kids are pestering you to check it out. I get it. Real Steel has robots. Giant robots. And they’re boxing. Little boys roughly the same age as Goyo's young Max should be chomping at the bit for this live-action Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em feature … even though they likely don’t know what Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots are.
Let’s look for silver linings. In between the brutal robot bouts, there are elements to champion, starting with Max’s stubborn commitment to his scrappy robot, Atom, which begins the moment he unearths the underdog fighter in the robot junkyard. They form a friendship that patterns itself after Elliot and E.T. from Spielberg’s masterpiece (without ever coming close to a sliver of the heart Spielberg poured into his unlikely pairing).
And Jackman’s too good of an actor to totally whiff on the mentoring role Charlie must grow into. As vile and hateful as self-centered Charlie can be in the opening half of Real Steel, the naturally likeable Jackman ramps up the charm in the final act so that Max, emotionally cautious love interest Evanageline Lilly, and yes, even the audience are standing up to cheer this damaged fighter in his championship bout.
Granted, the enthusiasm isn’t necessarily earned so much as it’s carbon-copied from the tried-and-true Rocky formula. And you have to filter through far too much depravity to reveal the tiny heart of Real Steel. Which is why …
Real Steel really isn’t appropriate for anyone under 13 – and probably even older than that.
The movie has a mean streak that this parent didn’t expect (or appreciate). The violent battles may occur between robotic special effects, but it’s still violence, and it can negatively impact young audience members who are subjected to authentic anger, resentment, loathing and fury. Not the qualities I tend to associate with a supposed family film.
I’d just as soon you let your kids watch Gavin O’Connor’s grossly underappreciated MMA drama Warrior, which has far more to do with the strengthening bonds of family than Real Steel. Maybe that will be the subject of a future When Can I Watch column somewhere down the road.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.