Real Steel, the 2011 movie directed with uncharacteristic style and energy by Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen, Night at the Museum, Date Night), is loosely based on Richard Matheson’s 1956 short story, “Steel.” The story had already been adapted twice for the small screen, as a 1962 Twilight Zone episode and — surprisingly faithfully — as a 2004 episode of The Simpsons.
The movie, which stars Hugh Jackman former boxer Charlie Kenton, is a pretty good flick. Jackman, whose character is a down-and-mostly-out robot-boxing manager (his robots aren’t what you might call top performers), has a lot of fun, and Dakota Goyo, who plays his 11-year-old son from a previous relationship, is quite good too.
Son, you say, what son? Yes, well, they did change Matheson’s story rather a lot. We’ll get to the son, but first I want to talk about something that looks like a major change to the story, but really isn’t. “Steel,” the short story, involves a robot-boxing manager (Steel Kelly, played by Lee Marvin) whose last, desperate attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat involves disguising himself as his robot and climbing into the ring, where he almost gets beaten to death by his opponent, an actual robot. In Real Steel, the robots are giants, ten and more feet tall, and there’s no way Charlie could disguise himself as one. Here, so you can compare, are images from Real Steel and from the Twilight Zone episode:
But: in the final scenes of Real Steel, Charlie’s robot is on the ropes, being pummelled by its opponent, and Charlie — well, it’s a pretty neat thing he does, a visually very cool thing, and I don’t want to spoil it for you, but let’s say that, like Matheson’s Steel Kelly, Charlie winds up going one-on-one against the machine. In practical terms the movie does something very different from Matheson; thematically, they stick pretty close to the source material.
Now to the son. If you’re familiar with the short story, your first thought is that there’s no room for a kid here. But Steel is a short story, not a novel; if you’re making it into a movie you have to do something to pad it out. And why not pad it out with a venerable — nay, almost mandatory — sports-movie story? The disreputable dad, who learns after more than a decade that he has a son; the fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants fella who has to learn how to be a father (and how to be a better man); the disillusioned kid who learns to trust, and to love.
Jackman and Goyo make a nice team, too, dancing around each other like, I don’t know, a couple of sparring partners, trading verbal punches, united by their shared love of boxing (it turns out the kid is a bit of a genius). Their slow-but-steady growth from enemies into friends is the real story here; the robots are really cool window dressing.
Because Real Steel, when you get right down to it, isn’t a science fiction movie. It’s a good, old-fashioned boxing movie that just happens to have robots in it. It didn’t bomb at the box office, but it didn’t do particularly well either, and I think you ought to give it a look.