Hugh Jackman's latest might be a fighting robot movie but it's got a very human side, he tells Lydia Jenkin in Sydney.
On the surface Real Steel sounds like it was designed by a 12-year-old boy. Action? Tick. Fighting? Tick. Robots? Tick. Hugh Jackman (aka Wolverine) in a lead role? Tick. With Steven Spielberg executive producing, and Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum and Date Night) in the director's chair, it has all the right credentials for a blockbuster sports-action flick.
What is unexpected, is that it also resonates on a much more personal level. Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a washed-up boxer in the year 2020, who has been superseded by giant robots in the ring. He's now a "corner man" to these battling bots. He's not doing so well. Then, just as his estranged 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo) lands in his lap, he takes on an outmoded scrapheap robot named Atom.
Despite the potential cheese factor, it's a surprisingly emotional redemption tale. Among the swinging, gleaming metal of the convincing action scenes is an underdog story and one about a father reconnecting with his son. It's the human element that makes it something more than just another robo-film.
Says Jackman: "My kids [Oscar is 11 and Ava, 6] saw this and totally flipped over the robots, and the boy's relationship with the robots, but my wife [actress Deborra-Lee Furness] saw it at the same screening, and my mother-in-law, and both of them were crying, and my wife's hitting me going 'I thought it was a robot movie."'
The notion of being given a second chance and the desperation that comes with that is something that Jackman felt was universally relateable.
"Charlie had pretty much given up at the beginning of the film. He's is a bit of a conman, desperately trying to work his way out of a jam, but deep down he's his own worst enemy because he's lost belief in himself. And that's something we can all relate to - I can relate to it, I see it, I have friends like Charlie, and I always think, 'there but for the grace of God go I'."
Director Levy says Jackman was perfect for the role, not just because he's a boxing natural (his father was a boxer in the British Army) but because he generates such audience goodwill as an actor. His engaging quality is important given Charlie behaves pretty reprehensibly for much of the film, including effectively selling Max to Max's exceedingly rich aunt and uncle in the first 10 minutes.
"I was fully expecting to be reshooting the first half of the movie. You know it's a Dreamworks movie, distributed by Disney around the world, so it's not what you'd expect. We'd talked about it a lot, you know, where is the point where audiences just go, 'no, I don't care what you do now, it's over, you're done'. And I think you're duty bound to go as far as you can to that point if you're genuinely telling a redemption tale. I mean Rocky was a standover guy, a thug who broke people's knees if they didn't pay up. So it is important to go there, but I really did think we'd end up reshooting. They stuck with it though, and I'm really proud of Shaun for going for that."
It's a credit to Jackman that despite some head-shakingly bad decisions you're right behind Charlie to the finale. Jackman drew on various sources of inspiration to find the right tone for this character, a guy who manages to win others over with a cheeky smile, including love-interest Bailey, played by Lost star Evangeline Lilly.
"There's a couple of people I know, who through different circumstances have ended up at rock bottom, but even with all that destructive behaviour, there was a charm. Because what we forget is that they have to survive on their wits and charm. I thought that's why Christian Bale did such a great job in The Fighter, because he really had that charm."
Jackson was aware that it was important that Charlie didn't wallow, that he was constantly moving forward despite making mistake after mistake.
"I thought that if audiences saw that, they might see that he's not really thinking anything through, he's more reactive, and he's impulsive."
The three pivotal robot fight scenes are also incredibly real, expertly blending the actions of human boxers (Sugar Ray Leonard choreographed the fights, and coached Jackman about being a corner man) with the much heavier clash of steel on steel. They built four robots to scale, and used Avatar-based motion capture technology to integrate them seamlessly.
In one of the best scenes, Max teaches Atom how to dance, making it his signature routine to perform before a fight. An accomplished dancer in his own right, Jackman gave Goyo a few tips when it came time to perform the routine.
"He was learning it with a choreographer, and I think he was pretty much looking at me like 'no jazz hands old man', but I was there for him on the day, because I kept thinking, 'how would I do that? If I was 11, dancing in front of 10,000 people?' We see it with the robot, but for half the shots there's no robot, and then the other half there's Eddy, on stilts, doing the dance behind Dakota in green pyjamas."
Who: Hugh Jackman
What: Real Steel
When: At cinemas from today