The Quarantine Stream: 'Real Steel' is 'Rocky' Meets 'The Iron Giant' with a Big Amblin Heart

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Movie: Real Steel

Where You Can Stream It: Netflix

The Pitch: In the not-so-distant future, boxing has gone high-tech. 2000-pound, 8-foot-tall steel robots have taken over the ring, and washed up boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) can’t stop his streak of bad luck losing fights with robots that he doesn’t know how to handle. But when his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) shows up on his door-step, he might have a shot at a comeback when the two stumble upon an old sparring robot with an intriguing glint of life in his eyes and the strength to take some hits without slowing down. As the two hit the robot boxing circuit, they not only find a hopeful new champion, but a chance at having a real connection with each other.

Why Its Essential Viewing: The kind of sports comedies and action adventures that kids of the 1980s and 1990s grew up with just aren’t being made by studios anymore. Chalk it up to studios unwilling to take risks in gearing more edgy movies towards younger audiences, or just a lack of interest in family friendly movies that aren’t animated tentpoles or four quadrant blockbusters. But in 2011, Night at the Museum franchise director Shawn Levy delivered both a sports drama and a sci-fi adventure that mixes Rocky with The Iron Giant, giving us some Amblin Entertainment kind of magic and heart that doesn’t come along very often. Perhaps that’s why Steven Spielberg executive produced it.

Real Steel exists in a grounded world where dirty, risky underground boxing in unique rural and industrial settings brings a folksy, blue collar feel to the proceedings, despite there being high-tech robots in the middle of makeshift boxing rings. Adding to the grounded feel are the incredible visual effects that bring the robots to life, making the digital robots look at one with the practical effects used on set. Plus, Danny Elfman delivers one of his most subtle scores, providing a musical backbone that lifts up triumphs when it’s called for and lingers in the background when it’s time for Jackman and Goyo to do the heavy lifting.

Speaking of which, it’s Hugh Jackman who might be the movie’s best special effect. He so effortlessly plays the kind of rough around the edges, irresponsible father that it can feel a little uncomfortable when he treats his kid like nothing more than an inconvenience to quickly dispatch. The chemistry he has with Dakota Goyo is the heart of the movie, and Real Steel wouldn’t anywhere near as well as it does without their emotional arc. Like Jackman, Goyo has no problem leaning into his role as a know-it-all kid who isn’t about to take any crap from the father who hasn’t wanted anything to do with him for a long time. He’s the kind of kid who’s a bit of a jerk, but you can’t help but like him. Together, they’re spectacular.

Though he’s gotten plenty of street cred for executive producing Stranger Things, director Shawn Levy has a fairly embarrassing streak of low quality comedies, including Big Fat Liar, Cheaper By the Dozen, The Pink Panther remake, Date Night, and The Internship. That’s why it’s kind of a miracle that Real Steel is so outstanding in so many ways. It’s a sci-fi adventure that doesn’t hinge only on big budget special effects. It has an indie heart as the adversarial dynamic between Hugh Jackman and Dakota Goyo blossoms into a nice father-son relationship while they’re traveling from ring to ring. And it’s an uplifting sports drama that packs a punch full of heart and adrenaline. Give this underdog a shot on Netflix right now.

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