If you read my rant about the Footloose remake, you have likely already sensed that I have a problem with the lack of originality in Hollywood. Lately, big-budget films are feeling more and more like a series of stitched-together tropes and clichés. Why is every film so familiar? Why are new ideas so rare? Why must every storyline be strip-mined until its metaphorical mineral deposits have been completely depleted?
There is one storyline, however, that is never depleted. It is an eternally renewable resource. It is as old as time itself, and yet every time we see this same story, we feel as if it is the first time.
I am, of course, referring to the Inspirational Sports Movie.
When you watch an Inspirational Sports Movie, you already know exactly what is going to happen: the protagonist(s) are going to face a struggle, someone is going to doubt him/her/them, he/she/they are going to have at least one badass montage, before achieving either real or symbolic victory in a final climactic race/game/match of some kind. Every human in the movie-watching world knows this formula by rote, and there is absolutely no reason why we should keep watching this same movie over and over and over. But we do. Because it is freaking invigorating, and beautiful, and sometimes we just need to live in that simple, cathartic world where the little guy wins and the bad guy is easy to identify (because he’s a bully, or really violent, or has a really malevolent foreign accent of some kind).
Real Steel (rather loosely based on a 1956 story by Richard Matheson) is just another Rocky, or Karate Kid, or Mighty Ducks—whatever, who cares. It’s great. It doesn’t just give us an underdog—it gives us two underdogs. Charlie, played by an unkempt and scowling (but still ludicrously attractive, TAKE ME NOW) Hugh Jackman, is an ex-boxer who barely remembers the glory days and now passes the time by making reckless gambles on boxing robots.
Oh, right, there’s robot boxing in this movie. You probably already know this, but I’m just reminding you in case the premise was so intensely silly that you’ve forgotten it already. The basic idea is Mortal Kombat meets Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots; the mechanical fighters in this not-too-distant future are guided completely by their human handlers, either by voice commands or old-school Nintendo-like controllers, and a bloodthirsty (oil-thirsty?) crowd watches them rip each other apart. Most of the robots are huge and shiny and scary, and probably built in Japan. One of them even has two heads, which is pretty sweet.
Which brings us to our second underdog: Atom the robot. Atom is adorable, you guys. He’s littler than all the other robots, and he’s just a sparring bot so he wasn’t designed to win fights. He’s dingy and retro, his mesh face has scrappy little stitches on it, and the odds are quite literally programmed against him. Basically, he’s a perfect heartstrings-tugging machine.
But if that’s not heartwarming enough for you, here’s Charlie’s estranged son Max, played by the precocious and tooth-achingly cute Dakota Goyo.
Max is the epicenter of this cheese soufflé of a movie. First of all, he loves Atom on sight, and it’s the cutest thing in the entire world. It’s like the classic “boy and his dog” story, except with a 10-foot robot who punches things. He even teaches the robot to dance, which brings the movie to dangerously high whimsy levels.
SPOILER ALERT: they actually do the robot. And it is glorious.
The relationship between Charlie and Max is initially very broken, and Charlie’s gruff, dismissive interactions with his son make the character genuinely unlikeable at times—which is not only a risky move for such a broadly-marketed blockbuster, but also an impressive feat for Jackman, who might be one of the most un-hatable performers in the universe.
But of course, Charlie’s initial grinchiness just makes the inevitable moment when his heart grows three sizes that much more effective. This movie has an emotional honesty to it that is just irresistible; Jackman and Goyo are ridiculously engaging together, and their family drama is guaranteed to making you embarrassed about how invested you are in this totally dumb robot boxing movie that you only intended to watch ironically.
Because it’s all so manipulative—the cute, fast talking kid, the little robot that could, the down-on-his-luck retired athlete who unexpectedly gets one more shot to be somebody—but it works. We see these movies and we know they are going to mess with our emotions in predictable ways, but we can’t help letting them. The Inspirational Sports Movie is like Irony Kryptonite; cool detachment cannot stand up to the relentless barrage of pure, unrestrained idealism. We need that feeling, because the world is complicated and frightening. If Charlie and Max were real, then Charlie would bail and Max would never see his father again. And if robot boxing were real, than the shiny, expensive, Japanese robots would kick Atom’s retro ass back to the junkyard.
So go see Real Steel without shame. Cheer for that father-son reconciliation and that adorable underdog robot while a single tear of sentimental satisfaction rolls down your cheek. No one will judge you. Real life is hard, Hugh Jackman is hot, and robots are awesome. Embrace it.