(by Dustin Putman
"Real Steel" is akin to the overblown, shamelessly pandering, screechingly irritating recent MMA-centric "Warrior," only with robots. Perhaps this leap from reality is the element that most helps the film, making its broader, patter, more syrupy emotions palatable. There are effective moments here, but also a certain artifice to its plodding intentions. For all its pounding metal and mechanical carnage within the ring, director Shawn Levy (2010's "Date Night") and screenwriter John Gatins (2005's "Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story") want to tell a weepy, rousing father-son story at heart. Just because the picture is set in the (near) future doesn't mean it is the least bit contemporary, though; the plot's every step wouldn't even have been considered new when Richard Matheson wrote the short story "Steel" (from which this is loosely based) in 1956. Article continues below
Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) was once an up-and-coming boxer until robots took over the sport, becoming all the rage with the technological advancement of artificial intelligence. Now he travels the country as a promoter, doing what he can to hawk his latest mechanical fighter and earn enough money to keep himself and girlfriend Bailey's (Evangeline Lilly) inherited gym afloat. A wrench is thrown Charlie's way in the form of estranged 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo). His mother has just died and his well-off Aunt Debra (Hope Davis) wants full custody, an arrangement that sounds just fine to Charlie until he is offered $75,000 by Debra's husband Marvin (James Rebhorn) to take Max for the summer while they are in Italy. Charlie obliges without actually considering that he will have to, you know, care for a child for a few months. Headstrong and insistent, Max tags along with Charlie on his travels and eventually comes upon an older robot model named Atom. Charlie chalks it up to outdated junk, but Max has a good feeling about this one. Equipped with expert mimicry skills that aid in its training, Atom begins winning competitions. As the summer draws to a close and the World Robot Boxing Championship nears, Max is all too aware that what becomes of his newfound relationship with his father rests on Charlie's shoulders. If he loves his son, shouldn't he be prepared to fight for him?
The golden-hued heartland of America doesn't get much dreamier than in "Real Steel," cinematographer Mauro Fiore's (2009's "Avatar") images roasting nostalgically like open-fired chestnuts from a Jerry Bruckheimer production. With Charlie barreling through the Midwest prairies in his truck headed for a nighttime carnival of vibrant lights and bustling sounds, the opening sequence is made all the more pretty by the use of Alexi Murdoch's quixotic "All of My Days" on the soundtrack, a choice that would be more inspired if 2009's "Away We Go" hadn't beat it to the punch. This attractive but familiar start could just as well describe the film as a whole, which means better than the scope of what it achieves. The bond between Charlie and Max is one that grows strong, but feels misguided, with Max becoming so preoccupied with his dad's robo-boxing business that it's hard to tell whether he'd care about Charlie as much if he were, say, a door-to-door salesman. Select moments that emotionally pierce arise from the weight of Dakota Goyo's (2011's "Thor") performance, as Max, and the sheer willfulness of how loud and pounding things get, but these elements, too, must vie for time against the creaky machinations of a predictable melodrama that blatantly tugs and manipulates.
The performances are a mixed bag, with far too many day players for comfort seen waving their arms around as they talk—not in an animated way so much as out of true-blue stilted amateurishness. As for the bigger names, so to speak, Hugh Jackman (2009's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine") wavers between straight-faced and committed and straightfaced and annoyed. He doesn't make much of an impression either way; he's in nearly every scene, yet there's no verve to what he's doing. As Max, Dakota Goyo gets better as he goes, at first striking one as immensely unctuous before lessening the abrasiveness and finding the neglected yearning underneath his acting-out. In her first role since the end of TV's "Lost," Evangeline Lilly (2009's "The Hurt Locker") overcomes what is a stock part on paper—that of Charlie's tough, doubting love interest Bailey—and delivers a few quietly affecting moments (like one set on the roof of the gym) in the second half. This is particularly surprising considering she is instructed to practically yell all her lines early on as she bickers with Charlie. Finally, the invaluable Hope Davis (2008's "Synecdoche, New York") is too good for what the role of Aunt Debra asks of her, but at least she's been envisioned not as a one-dimensional nag, but as a woman who genuinely cares about what is good for her sister's son.
In "Real Steel," white women are treated as more than objects, but the bad guys—wealthy robot architect Tak Mashido (Karl Yune) and girlfriend Farra Lemkova (Olga Fonda)—are stereotypically Asian and Russian. If they had mustaches, they'd be stroking them mischievously. The climax, pitting Atom against Tak's seemingly unstoppable Zeus, is about what one expects from any conventional sports movie, though director Shawn Levy does strive for an added layer of schmaltz by focusing on Charlie's and Max's father-son catharsis as much as he does on the battle in the ring. It's all very heavy-handed, but maybe kids of about ten to thirteen will be more taken with it. Technically, "Real Steel" features some of the year's most seamless visual effects—the robots look real at all times rather than an artificial product of CGI—and the fight choreography is on cohesive footing. It's a competent family-drama-action hybrid, but there is not enough heart-to-heart interaction between the two leads to wholly buy into their eventual changeover from petulance to adoration. The dancing, fist-throwing robots keep getting in the way.