Ah, the American dream. The hope that everyone, regardless of status, wealth or origin, has the opportunity to work for what they want and get it. One of the great ways Hollywood has represented the American dream in film is through boxing. Films like Cinderella Man, Ali, The Fighter and the most famous of all, Rocky. Rocky Balboa has been a symbol of the American dream for more than three decades. He continues to win the hearts of Americans by proving that the underdog from humble beginnings can go the distance.
Stepping into the smackdown ring to challenge Rocky is Real Steel, set to release in theaters Friday, October 6. Real Steel is a real contender, with a dynamic cast, stellar special effects and a sentimental story with heart. But does it have what it takes to defeat Rocky, the legendary, reigning champion? Let’s bring this fight to the ring and find out. There’s the opening bell…
BUMS OF STEEL: Underdogs in the Ring
Real Steel takes place in the near future, when humans grow tired of watching two people rip each other apart in the ring. To keep boxing alive, they discover a new form of entertainment: robot boxing. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), a washed-up pugilist, has been trying to make a career of robot boxing with longtime friend, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly). When Charlie’s at his lowest, he learns the mother of his son recently passed away, so he takes on Max (Dakota Goyo) for the summer with the intent of passing him along to his aunt and uncle when they return from Europe. Max stumbles upon Atom, a very old spar robot, and with the help of Charlie, trains him to become a boxer.
While father and son rekindle their relationship, Max manages to get Atom a fight with the World Champion robot, Zeus. Now Charlie and Max must prepare Atom for a difficult fight by attempting something even more difficult — finding the will to believe in each other.
The idea that in the future, robot boxers replace human boxers, but must still be controlled by humans, is very clever in terms of the way technology works. As we can see with the Jeopardy quiz show’s Watson robot, machines are fast, but they still don’t have the ability to think as quickly as people. Giving Atom a shadow function, in which he is capable of mimicking Charlie’s moves, makes the fighting in the ring that much more believable, and exciting.
The Defending Champion
In 1976, Sylvester Stallone attended a boxing match, which inspired him so deeply that he wrote the script for Rocky, supposedly in three days. The story centers on the boxing career of Rocky Balboa, the Italian Stallion from Philadelphia. Just when Rocky is ready to toss aside his gloves, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the World Heavyweight Champion, challenges him to a fight on Columbus Day, giving an Italian underdog the chance of a lifetime to reemphasize the American dream.
Stallone became the underdog both on and off the set during the shooting of Rocky. The fact that he was not yet established in Hollywood jeopardized the success of the film. Even Carl Weathers had trouble believing Stallone was the right man for the job when he openly insulted Stallone during his audition, stating that he would have read his role better if he weren’t working with a stand-in. In looking back, can you imagine anyone else playing the role of Rocky? I sure can’t.
When Rocky first visits the little pet shop where Adrian (Talia Shire) works, you’d never believe the relationship could grow into one of the most famous in film history. Talia Shire’s portrayal of Adrian, the shy lamb who finds her beauty with Rocky’s love, led to an Academy Award nomination, along with nominations for co-stars Stallone, Burgess Meredith and Burt Young.
Rocky won three Academy Awards that year for Best Picture, Best Director John G. Avildsen, and Best Editing. (It’s competition for Best Picture that year included some pretty notable runners-up: Network, Taxi Driver, Bound for Glory and All the President’s Men.) Because of its surprising popularity and award-winning status, Stallone proceeded to make four more installments, three of which he directed and all of which he wrote.
In both Real Steel and Rocky, the underdogs fight in championship boxing events. The difference is, the work that Charlie, Max and Atom do together, Rocky accomplishes himself. Rocky has the heart and determination Max demonstrates throughout Real Steel; he has the stubbornness and lack of self-esteem exhibited by Charlie, and always manages to get back on his feet like Atom.
In terms of production, Rocky is bare-bones, whereas Real Steel uses the glam of special effects to spice up the entertainment. The reason why I think Rocky continues to thrive in the 21st century is because the shots of skid row and the dimly lit scenes paint a dismal picture for the audience, evoking true sympathy for Rocky’s situation. It’s not a beautiful world for Rocky, and so the need to achieve his goal is that much more imperative. On the contrary, the shots in Real Steel are beautiful, the robots are cool, and the actors are gorgeous. We as an audience are constantly reminded that we’re just watching a movie.
Real Steel still manages to keep on its feet. After all, a movie is meant first and foremost to entertain, right? And Reel Steal does it well. Max’s gimmick dancing with Atom before every fight is pretty rad and gets big laughs. By the end of the film, you can’t help but root for Atom the same way audiences have rooted for Rocky. And because the humans control the robots, in the end it’s really a battle of wits and not fists. A smart move made by screenwriter, John Gatins (from a story by Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven).
Where the writers and director Shawn Levy falter is in making Real Steel story so similar to that of Rocky. When you have two boxing films, both with wildcard contenders and they both manage to go the distance, you get the strange feeling you’re having déjà vu. Does the structure work for Real Steel? Certainly. Have films been made and remade with the same themes, similar characters, and parallel situations? Sure. So with both opponents still standing, let’s move to the final decision.
As Real Steel and Rocky both show, it’s mighty tough beating a defending champion. Rocky’s knockout punch for me, the one that sent Real Steel sprawling to the mat, was the originality issue. Yes, this isn’t the first time a movie has utilized a formulaic story, and on a certain level it works beautifully, but a film can’t beat the one preceding it by mirroring the original’s structure, no matter how many special effects and storylines are added.
When Rocky was released, it brought back feel-good, inspirational movies that were lacking in Hollywood at the time. It was fresh and original. Real Steel put up a heck of a fight and made it to this championship match. It had all the components necessary to make a decent film. Unfortunately, we’ve seen the outcome before — in Rocky. For a small-town boxer who only ever wanted to go the distance, Rocky has won awards, won over audiences, and now this Smackdown title.