“Real Steel,” As Reviewed By A Boxing Writer

A boxing movie, specifically a boxing movie featuring boxing robots, is improbably the #1 movie in America. It’s improbable because most reaction I’d seen to the announcement of “Real Steel,” and to the early trailers, was along the lines of, “That movie looks doofus-y.” And Hugh Jackman hasn’t been hitting it out of the park at the box office lately. Then again, it is executive produced by Steven Spielberg and he’s got that ticketselling Midas touch, and the competition is a little thin. “Improbably,” then, but not implausibly.

Anytime boxing is in the zeitgeist, I’m paying close attention. I spent the early part of my Columbus Day watching the thing, and it’s a decent enough film. (Improbably.) But I’m more interested in what it says about boxing than most others, since I write about… boxing.

I think it says a few things about boxing, actually. Some of them, very probably, are wrong. Some of them maybe say more about sports overall. But it also speaks to some of the traditional things that boxing says about us.

Conceptually, “Real Steel” is Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, The Movie. If you haven’t had the chance to play Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots lately, maybe the basic appeal of “Real Steel” is lost on you. I have played it in the last couple months because a boxing-themed bar in D.C., The Pug, makes it available. It’s a fun game. And in an era of filmmaking that is dominated by remakes, even remakes of childhood things that can’t conceivably be made into movies, that basic appeal is enhanced. With people also lately spending an awful, awful lot of cash on giant, fighting robots — like all three horrible “Transformers” movies (admittedly I haven’t seen the third, so perhaps that’s unfair) — they are so hot right now.

But there’s something else going on here. Besides an era of filmmaking dominated by remakes, we live in an era of sports fandom where playing fantasy sports, be they actual “fantasy sports” or video games like Madden is a huge, huge part of that fandom. In that regard, there’s something to be said for a movie where the athletes themselves — if robots can be athletes — aren’t the focus. A kid with a remote control is, to an extent, as relatable character if not a more relatable character to a certain audience than a real-life boxer.

In another layer besides, the film plays a few tricks to get you into the ring without actually doing so. The central robot character — Atom — is not all that relatable because for as cute as it is when he shares dance scenes with adorable kid Max (Dakota Goyo), the closest thing to a soul he has is a face that looks roughly human. That’s just enough. As Scott McCloud wrote in “Understanding Comics,” a smiley-faced cartoon creates, through abstraction of the image, universality. But you never really feel Atom’s pain, or at least I didn’t. He’s never terribly human to me. (He is, on the other hand, quite “real” like the other robots in the film in that the CGI is just about as good as you’ll see in movies today, if not better.)

Instead, the chief mechanism by which we relate to these non-athletes is via a clever technological gimmick: Atom, rare in boxing robots, has a “shadow” function that allows him to mimick the actions of a human in real-time. Thus, when Max or Charlie (Hugh Jackman) face him and shadow-box, so can Atom, and just like Max or Charlie does. That technological gimmick allows Charlie and Max to project their desires on Atom.

As it happens, those desires are very similar to the ones common to other boxing movies. Charlie’s down and out; he’s never lived up to his potential. So too is Max down and out, desperate. But like Atom, both of them show they can take a beating, and both have some fight in them. And who doesn’t love an underdog, especially in America, especially if he’s a plucky rogue capable of great charm like Charlie or Max? Isn’t that what makes “Rocky” such a classic American film? The lesson, like that of so many other boxing films, is that if you work hard enough and can endure enough, you can rise to the top. It’s the classic lesson, really, to the point of being a cliche.

The physical detachment does somewhat lessen the impact of the action, as much trickery as goes into getting you into it. We can feel the emotional pain of Charlie and Max when things aren’t going well for their robots, but we can’t get that physical dimension. Human drama, obviously, can be both physical and mental in a way that robot drama cannot, especially when they aren’t sentient robots like an Optimus Prime, say.

Despite this missing dimension, the action retains some fun. The fight scenes — choreographed with the help of Sugar Ray Leonard — are somewhat entertaining and, somehow, dramatic. I discovered myself subconsciously bobbing and weaving in my mind, even though there was an over-reliance on the kind of “first you punch me then I punch you” boxing scenes typified in so many films of the genre. (Besides Leonard, other boxing types were brought in to provide an air of legitimacy, such as filmed scenes that included boxing writers Kevin Iole, Tim Smith, Chris Mannix and Bernard Fernandez. Although I was looking out for them, I only caught a glimpse of Fernandez’ face during a scene where actors playing reporters asked questions, and they were particularly clunky, exposition-laden questions at that.)

That said, the fight scenes are not purely boxing fight scenes. They are, as often as not, mixed martial arts scenes. Interestingly enough, the boxing/MMA divide figures into the back story of a world where robot boxing has risen to prominence. In the narrative, Charlie tells of a time when people became bored with boxing because it wasn’t violent enough, fostering a turn to MMA. MMA couldn’t completely fill that need for carnage, so battles to the death had to be provided by robots, whose “deaths” are not so consequential.

I think this back story misses the point of boxing, or what has actually happened with the rise of MMA. Both sports are, at this time, popular separate (mostly) from one another, even if they are niche sports. But in its formative years, MMA’s level of unhinged violence was a hindrance to its popularity, not a boon. A certain crowd is always going to want to gawk at street fights. But to advance beyond that particularly bloodthirsty crowd, MMA had to implement additional safety rule and bar more kinds of attack on its eventual road to its current level of mainstream acceptance.

Moreover, “carnage” isn’t a term that can technically apply to robots. Defined, it is “the flesh of slain animals and men.” I don’t count myself as too far on the bloodthirsty end of boxing fandom, but it’s undeniable that the sacrifice men make of their bodies in the boxing ring is, if not central, a vital aspect of what lends boxing its theatrics. Robots fighting each other is fun because it’s combat, but it’s also fun BECAUSE it’s robots. I liked the idea of the “BattleBots” TV show for that reason alone, although, in implementation, it wasn’t as exciting as it could have been with more sophisticated technology. I like real-life human boxing matches for similar but opposite reasons: BECAUSE it’s humans, doing stuff that I count among the peak of human achievement.

Some of that impacts how good “Real Steel” is. Some of it is mere observation about what the movie misses, simply from a back story standpoint, and does not distract from whether the film is enjoyable.

And hey, it’s nothing special. It’s got its moments. It’s a basically good film that if someone asked me, “Should I see it?” I’d answer, “Sure, although I wouldn’t necessarily make it a priority. You’ll have a good time, especially if your expectations are low. Maybe there’s something better you could do instead.” If you can dig a Hollywood flick that’s narrowly on the “good for Hollywood” scale, then you can dig this. Boxing fans, naturally, are going to look at it from a slightly different perspective, maybe along the lines of what I’ve said here or maybe not; it is, though, like most boxing movies, a movie where boxing is a scenario in which the story transpires more than it’s a movie about boxing. If anything, a la “The Fighter,” it’s a movie about family. I suspect that if the movie continues to do well, the family angle will be a bigger reason than the boxing angle.

In one of the movie’s other cliches (they are fairly numerous, although not disqualifying), one of the “villains” is an Ivan Drago-like tag team of soulless, corporate-slick backers of the robot “Zeus.” For as straightforward a movie as this is, it sure works a lot of themes. We have a bad economy and the poor little guys confronting the representation of oppressive, efficient big business. We have the interplay between man and machine, a constant in the arts but given the past couple decades of transformative technological advances, one that resonates in 2011. Interestingly enough, for all the movie does and doesn’t say about how much boxing’s appeal is related to its corporeal qualities — and this is not a spoiler — the essential humanity at the core of the main characters is highly influential to the outcomes in the ring.

In a roundabout sort of way, we end up with a more thought-provoking boxing movie than the doofus-y concept and unappetizing trailers hinted we would get.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.