“Real Steel” is way better than it has any right to be. I mean, it’s a movie about boxing robots for Pete’s sake! Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots were fun, but they weren’t that fun.
Anyway, “Real Steel” earns its stripes by focusing more on the human element than on robotic carnage and winds up being the automaton version of “Rocky.” Who knew?
Set in the near future where human-controlled robot boxing has pushed people out of the ring, down-on-his-luck, ex-boxer-turned-robot-fighter Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) tours the countryside dodging loan sharks and cobbling together new robots for bouts at county fairs and in back alleys.
As Charlie reaches his lowest point, a long-forgotten ex-girlfriend dies leaving Charlie with custody of an 11-year-old son (Max, played by Dakota Goyo) he has never known. Max has a wealthy Aunt Debra (played by the ever-charming Hope Davis) who wants Max to live with her, and Charlie gladly agrees to sign over his parental rights for a wad of cash.
But as plot contrivances would have it, Debra can’t take custody until the end of the summer, so Charlie is forced to keep Max for a couple of months.
The father and son butt heads and Charlie even attempts to dump Max on his love interest and landlord Bailey (Evangeline Lilly of “Lost”).
As it turns out, Charlie has a deep love of robot fighting and cons his dad into letting him join him on the road where father and son realize they have a lot more in common than either is willing to admit.
While looting parts in a junkyard, Max discovers an old robot named Atom buried in the mud, and even though Charlie dismisses the bot as worthless, Max persists and drags Atom home.
You can pretty much see where things will go from here as Atom proves to be a formidable fighter and father and son heal their rift.
In spite of its by-the-books plotting, “Real Steel” solidly and confidently delivers the crowd-pleasing goods.
Director Shawn Levy is best known for directing the “Night at the Museum” movies, so the guy knows how to handle high-concept spectacle. What’s impressive about his work here in “Real Steel” is how willing he is to dial back on the smashing and bashing while keeping Charlie and Max’s relationship in the foreground.
That relationship pays off thanks to the great chemistry between Jackman and Goyo. Jackman is as likeable as ever and Goyo shows a lot of confidence for his age, holding his own opposite Wolverine.
The special effects are impressively smooth as the battling robots seem to have real weight and heft as they pummel each other in the ring. The boxing is not too shabby either and I suspect that Sugar Ray Leonard’s credit as “boxing consultant” had a fair amount to do with that.
Movies are at their best when they accomplish what they set out to do and there is a pleasant simplicity to “Real Steel” as it is entertaining and enjoyable. Mission accomplished.
“Real Steel” is rated PG-13 for some violence, intense action and brief language.