Some movies are remakes; others are old ideas repackaged.
What makes these films worth our dollars is not the genesis of the idea, but the execution and how they use the familiar to get us to join in and take the journey.
“Real Steel” is not an original story. Its DNA dates back to a short story by Richard Matheson in1956. That story became an episode of “The Twilight Zone” starring Lee Marvin.
Going back further, “Real Steel” owes much to a movie from 1931, “The Champ,” that starred Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper (and that movie was itself remade in 1979 with Jon Voight and Rick Schroder).
Now it comes back again in “Real Steel.” This time, it’s the near future. Boxing between humans is outlawed, so robots box to give humans more carnage than the human pugilists could deliver.
Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a former human fighter who now travels the back roads and back alleys betting on fighting robots.
He isn’t any good. His cockiness and brash nature continually put him in positions where he ducks out on debts. He’s a loser.
An affair 11 years prior gave Charlie a son, Max (Dakota Goyo), but Charlie is an absent father. He left mother and child to go back on the road.
The mother dies and puts Max in the position of being adopted by his aunt (Hope Davis). Charlie has a chance to sign over his parental rights, but he instead uses the crisis as a means of getting money to pay off his fighting debts.
In order for the deal with the aunt to go through, however, Charlie must keep Max over the summer.
This, of course, sets up the dynamic of a father caring for a child he doesn’t want.
Charlie takes Max on the road, and while they travel Max discovers a discarded boxing robot called Atom.
Max wants to take Atom and enter him in fights, but Charlie is against it. Atom is an older fighting robot, smaller than those used currently, but Max believes in Atom.
After much arguing, Charlie agrees to get Max a fight. That’s when they discover that Atom is something special.
They work their way up the ranks and get Atom into the World Robot Boxing league, whose champion is a mammoth robot called Zeus.
See where this is headed?
There’s nothing new in “Real Steel,” just the stuff that has entertained audiences for decades: the underdog who gets the opportunity of a lifetime, and a father-son relationship with potential.
I don’t think “Real Steel” will make my top 10 list, nor do I believe it will be around at Oscar time when they read the list of best picture nominees. But that doesn’t mean “Real Steel” doesn’t do what it was made to do.
I was entertained by this movie, and so was my 15-year-old son. He’s never seen “Rocky” or “The Champ,” but that didn’t matter.
What these others had and what “Real Steel” reuses effectively make for an enjoyable afternoon at the movies.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence, intense action and brief language.
Director: Shawn Levy
Writer: John Gatins
Cast: Hugh Jackman: Charlie Kenton; Dakota Goyo: Max Kenton; Evangeline Lilly: Bailey Tallet; Hope Davis: Debra.
The movie’s website is here.
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.