Sometimes films come along that split the critics. More often than not, it's easy to see why it's generated that yeast spread reaction. In rarer cases, such as Real Steel, I'll be buggered if I can understand all the negativity. Yes, it's a throwback to so many other boxing/against-the-odds movies, from The Champ to Rocky, via Over The Top and assorted others. Yes, there are occasional holes – just how does a small boy carry an enormous robot out of a slippery dump? – and no, the script isn't going to win anyone a surprise Oscar. But quite how anyone can resist a film with this much heart remains a mystery.
The film is set a decade or so in the future. That means a world that's mostly recognisable – we're still waiting for the jetpacks, by the looks of it – but with some interesting (and believable) differences. The most notable of these, as far as the plot is concerned, is the banning of boxing. It's a sport that's incredible to watch, a visceral experience but, with the best will, when you see the state of too many ex-fighters, you have to accept there is no earthly justification for the sport. The future solution, according to (officially) John Gatins, Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven (and unofficially Richard Matheson whose short story Steel would appear to be the inspiration) is the introduction of robot boxing: remote controlled, metallic behemoths that deliver and take punishment without lingering mental and physical health problems.
Charlie Kenton (Jackman) is a robotic boxing... controller? Trainer? Promoter? Whatever the job title, it's not going well: he owes thousands to assorted loan sharks and, thanks to a grandstanding bet, his last robot fighter has been torn apart by an angry bull. He's also got some emotional problems to deal with, in the form of Max (Goyo), the 11-year old son he barely knows from a distant relationship. Max's mother, Charlie's ex, has died and so, for the next few months at least, he's going to be Charlie's responsibility.
With Max's “help”, Charlie discovers an old sparring robot called Atom, a device designed to take lots of damage and deliver little. Max, though, feels there's more to Atom than meets the eye, and persuades Charlie to take the punt. Inevitably – it wouldn't be much of a film otherwise – Atom's construction, Max's technical knowledge and ex-boxer Charlie's understanding of the sport see Atom progress through the ranks of underground and support card fights to a somewhat unlikely shot at the undefeated / undefeatable Zeus.
Like I said, Rocky. Atom is Balboa, Zeus is Apollo Creed. And Charlie and Max are basically the father and son team of Over The Top or The Champ. And it matters not one jot, because somehow Levy spins it all into a tale of redemption and humanity that's impossible to resist, with regular bursts of frenetic boxing action that are among the best effects work, well, ever. The joy is that the story drives the action for a change and, thanks to two fantastic central performances (plus lovely support from Lily as an old friend / girlfriend of Charlie), you'll even come to feel affection for Atom. The final fight – which ends in sort of unexpected but utterly perfect fashion – is one of the cinematic year's best moments, a combination of excitement and heart that, even several weeks on, brings a tear to the eye and makes all the hairs on the back of my neck stand up just thinking about it.Best Blu-ray of the year? No. Favourite Blu-ray of the year to date? Undoubtedly. It's a smasher.
EXTRAS ★★★½ An audio commentary with director Levy; a gag reel; four featurettes – Countdown to the Fight: The Charlie Kenton Story, Making of Metal Valley, Building the Bots, and Sugar Ray Leonard: Cornermans Champ; deleted and extended scenes, with optional commentaries from Levy.