Loosely based on the short story ‘Steel’ by Richard Matheson, the film is set in the year 2020 when traditional boxing has been replaced by the demand for gladiator-esque robot battles. The underdog to hero journey of Rocky is defiantly re-imagined here and the obvious comparisons to Transformers can be drawn.
The film begins with a penniless Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) waking to a warm beer breakfast in his cesspit of a trailer, looking somewhat worse for wear. Remember, we are being asked to believe that in less than a decade from now this is how all professional boxers will be living thanks to a rather unlikely technological advance in robotics. Anyhow, we are shown how Charlie tries to scrape a few dollars in this new sport by building his own bots out of scrap parts. Competing in small-time events to no avail, he is repeatedly humiliated in front of his so called ‘friends’ and rivals. Believability is stretched when, coincidentally, his female ex-partner dies in a completely unexplained circumstance. In turn, this leaves him in charge of his son, Max (Dakota Goyo) for the summer until he goes back to live with his late mother’s sister who has taken custody.
Thanks to TV and video games Max happens to be quite the World Robot Boxing league (WRB) expert, unnoticed by Charlie as he is focussed on redeeming himself single-handedly. Max is plunged straight into his dad’s pitiful lifestyle when, in the pouring rain; the two spend the night scavenging what they can from a junkyard. We get some desperately needed father-son bonding as Charlie runs to Max after nearly falling to his death, his fall broken, as if by fate, by a sparring robot called Atom. From this point on Max is infatuated with his new neon-eyed friend, believing this ordinary bot has something ‘special’ about him, indeed there is a touching moment where Max whispers to him ‘your secret is safe with me’. Using his stubbornness and innocent charm, Max successfully pulls at Charlie’s heartstrings to get them to work and compete as a team with Atom.
Money and greed are two commons themes in the film and this is confirmed when Max has to step in to stop his dad accepting $200,000 for their up-and-coming robot from the illustrious WRB champions Team Zeus. The duo goes on to achieve a big-time win against the formidable robot ‘Twin Cities’, indulging the audience in a sense of elation that heart and courage always shines through. The fearless Max publically challenges the world champions Team Zeus to a match, potentially their biggest fight yet.
Euphoria is quickly suppressed when we see Charlie fall victim to a violent attack by some of his past acquaintances to which he owed money. The on screen relationship that Jackman and Goyo portray gets stronger throughout the film and we genuinely feel for Max when he is made to go back to the safety of his guardian’s home in Washington. Max pleads with his dad to face up to Zeus and, eventually, the duo reunite for a showdown at the ‘Bing’ arena, in what is a product placement heavy two hours.
If you love the Transformers series the finale is everything you would want in terms of visual spectacle. The actual fight follows the same pattern of previous ones with Atom all but finished prompting Max to tap into his ‘connection’ and will Atom on, unleashing fury upon his opponent. Max and Charlie are hailed ‘the people’s champions’ and the two embrace. The endearing qualities of the characters make up for the films flaws and you will find it difficult to leave without finding it genuinely heart-warming.