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Never underestimate robot boxing. Despite reaching for nearly every cliche in the family-oriented sports underdog drama handbook short of titling the film “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots,” DreamWorks delivers a undeniable crowd-pleaser with Real Steel.
Just as Hugh Jackman’s Charlie tells his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) as they train a rusted-up sparring robot to be a champion boxer, it’s all about putting on a show for the people and that’s exactly what Real Steel does. For better or worse, robot boxing is cool, cool enough that should it ever cross into the non-fictional world, people will pay to see it, just as they will to see this movie.
In championing old-school sports movie values with a contemporary video-game-like twist, Real Steel is a 9-to-12-year-old boy’s fantasy on film and one that dads won’t mind taking their kids to see. Other than a script that tosses around the word “ass” like it’s the new way of saying “cool” (or as if the MPAA finally gave PG-13 movies permission to use it), there’s a good heart and moral to the story.
In the not-too-distant future, former boxer Charlie Kenton trains ton-sized robots to fight in the ring for a living, only he’s constantly running up a sizable tab as his bets don’t usually pay off or up. When he learns his ex has died and custody of their 11-year-old son has defaulted to him, Charlie strikes a deal with the boy’s rich uncle to sign custody over to his family for enough money to buy a new bot, but it also entails Max staying with his “dad” for the summer. As it turns out, Max is a bit of a robot boxing fan with twice the stubborn charisma of his father. Together they uncover an old bot in a junkyard named Atom who helps them put aside their ill will and get back in the game
Yes, Real Steel is 100 percent cookie cutter — an old blind hound could sniff out what’s coming next — but when sports montage comes to uplifting Danny Elfman score, a cookie cutter still makes cookies. In this case we’re talking giant-sized robot cookies, and it’s that shape that makes all the difference.
The likable qualities of Real Steel all come down to presentation, from the unique premise of robot boxing (ok, unique enough) to the charm of the lead actors to director Shawn Levy’s sound and instinctive storytelling style. Jackman and former “Lost” star Evangeline Lilly try to create a chemistry from a subplot that’s barely accounted for (her dad trained him, they’ve always been sort of on-again-off-again), but they make it work, mostly because they’re beautiful people with a decent measure of likability and talent.
Levy makes the whole mold work with an eye for what casual moviegoers like most and the presence of mind to know just when to say stop so that the script’s pouring of sap doesn’t make the whole thing soggy. The robots though, they steal the show. (I initially typed “steel,” which I thought was worth mentioning.) If I had at least 15 fewer years I’d already be out buying my Atom and Zeus action figures — maybe Noisy Boy too. The bots are well-conceived and expertly branded with unique names and appearances.
Speaking of branding, product placement runs rampant in this film. Max downs three Dr. Peppers before teaching Atom some dance moves, the robots are controlled by HP hologram computers and ads in the boxing arena rep XBox 720. If that kind of excess turns you off in a film, well, it’s not like you could call it surprising.
The heart comes from the father-son relationship, which evolves over time after starting out maddeningly immature. Charlie treats Max as a mere pawn at first and Max oversteps his boundaries as an 11-year-old. The script puts them on equal footing: Son seems to know just as much as father and youthful optimism seems a force as powerful as logic. Of course the optimism wins; we’re at the movies after all. Hope could definitely last five rounds in the ring against even the fiercest robot.
Real Steel can be counted among the rare films that offer an argument for the perpetuation of the Hollywood machine, but if all formulaic movies could handle the characters this well it wouldn’t matter. Truth is, it’s as easy to despise the movie in principle as it is to just enjoy it at face value — provided you dig giant fighting robots.
Rating: 7/10 Real Steel Directed by Shawn Levy Written by John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, Jeremy Leven Starring: Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo