Hollywood has called on Hugh Jackman to portray a feral mutant superhero, a vampire hunter, a singing penguin and a dapper cartoon rodent, so you would think his latest project, “Real Steel,” which opens Friday, would be a cinch — how hard could it be to channel a former boxer on the ropes in his personal life? But according to director Shawn Levy, the hard-luck protagonist Charlie Kenton took the actor into a unexpectedly challenging corner: It demanded he be casually cruel to his on-screen son, Max, played by the cherub-faced 12-year-old Dakota Goyo.
“After certain takes, Hugh would come up to me, concerned, asking ‘Are you sure I’m not being too harsh to this boy?’” Levy said. “I would assure him that … his fundamental kindness came through and, second, if we don’t set this character up as an unsympathetic rogue the satisfaction of his later redemption won’t pack a punch.”
Redemption and punching are the backbeat of the DreamWorks film that arrives in theaters Friday with good early reviews but also some quirky aspirations. The bus ads and billboards pitch “Real Steel” as a sci-fi sports film about giant boxing robots that pound each other into twisted metal, but on closer inspection it presents a story of father and son who are both just as broken as their defeated machine men.
“The father-son aspect is the spine of the movie,” Jackman said. “As cool a concept as it was to have all of the boxing robots, and as great as that is, we needed to achieve a couple of things beyond that. We needed to make people care about those robots and even with the great design that requires the audience to care about the people around the robots. It’s a redemption tale about all three beings — the father, the son and the robot.”
Before being filmed in Detroit and rural Michigan last year, the script for “Real Steel” had kicked around for years (it has a deep heritage — it’s based on “Steel,” a 1956 short story by Richard Matheson that was adapted in 1963 as a memorable “Twilight Zone” episode) but it changed significantly in the hands of Levy, a parent of four who concedes that his issues with his own father were just as important to the final film as the considerable special effects.
“Real Steel” is set in the near-future world where robot gladiator combat has become as big and corporate as NASCAR but also has a dark underground counterpart, sort of a “Fight Club” with hydraulics. Jackman’s character is obsessed with the scene until he gets a legal distraction — his ex-girlfriend has died and her son is now in the custody of a father he’s never known.
The elder Kenton is pretty despicable — at one point he essentially tries to sell the child to a rich couple to finance the purchase of a new robot. Jackman, himself a father of two, says it was unsettling to deliver some harsh lines while looking into the hurt eyes of young Goyo. “I have an 11-year-old and had to remind myself and Dakota, too, that in the scenes I’m not really the adult, we’re more like buddies,” Jackman said. “We had fun making the movie though … Dakota is a very talented actor and he’s great on screen and off. He’s well brought up. He’s wise beyond his years without being too precocious or too cocky or annoying.”
Goyo, who also appeared this summer in “Thor” as the young version of the Marvel Studios thunder god, said Jackman was one of his heroes coming into the project and quickly became a doting mentor — even if there were also plenty of pranks along the way. “We pranked each other and we also went to amusement parks outside Detroit,” Goyo said. “It was towards the middle of filming ‘Real Steel,’ around July. We had so much fun … in the movie he plays a completely opposite character. With Hugh, people say that he’s a nice guy but they’re not just saying it. He’s the nicest guy you could ever think of or meet. In the movie, Charlie, he’s the meanest guy you could ever meet or hear of.”
On-set niceties aside, the genre mash-up approach that “Real Steel” has embraced can be commercially risky in this contemporary marketplace — the sci-fi western “Cowboys & Aliens” found that to be true this summer, although “The Adjustment Bureau” did find a foothold with its hybrid of grown-up romance and conspiracy sci-fi thanks to a solid critical reception.
Levy, best known for the “Night at the Museum” films, said after years of Transformers, Terminators and droids, any new robot venture must dare to be different if it wants to separate itself in the eyes of a gear-weary audiences that has seen it all before in movies as well as video games. “If you’re going to make a robot movie in 2011 and position it and define it in a unique way, it had to be different — it had to be about more than its machines and more than its action. I always felt that this thing was going to sink or swim on the basis of its heart and being unembarrassed about it.”
It wasn’t “Real Steel’s” robot brethren who influenced Levy, but films including “The Champ,” “Rocky” and even “Paper Moon.”
No matter how the film fares at the box office, it already has surprised its star. By the end of the shoot, it turns out, the devoted father found a liberating surprise in his daily bad-dad duty for the camera. “You know when you have kids there’s things you can’t say, the things you think but can’t let slip out,” the actor said. “And you know for three months I got to let it all rip.”
— Geoff Boucher
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