Andy Bockelman: ‘Real Steel’ has both spots of rust and glimmer
November 4, 2011
2 out of 4 stars
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly and Kevin Durand.
With all the bizarre source materials that inspire movies today, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood started to turn to the world of plastic. Just take a look at the "Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots" kind of creations in "Real Steel."
Human sporting events are almost completely a thing of the past by 2020, with the sport of robot boxing all the rage.
Caught up in the fever is seasoned fighter Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), who's never quite been able to make the transition to using a remote control resulting in a long string of losses, busted competitors and wagers gone bad.
In debt to nearly everyone he knows, he now has another hassle: his 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo), whom he hasn't seen since infancy.
Charlie and his boy don't hit it off personally, but their shared interest in robot combat keeps them from killing each other.
While seeking out spare parts for Charlie's newest fighter, Max comes across an old, long-forgotten model named Atom. Though the metal man is considerably smaller than most robots and not designed for anything more than sparring, he is in perfect condition.
Charlie scoffs at the idea of Atom being a formidable boxer, but Max insists they get him into the ring. As Atom starts to turn heads in the fighting underworld, Charlie wonders if his son's new best friend could go all the way.
The amount of muscle Jackman has put on for the "X-Men" movies looks to be going to waste here, as he is stationed beside the turnbuckle and fighting by proxy rather than taking on his opposition mano a roboto.
Most of his scrapping is done with the boy he abandoned, who doesn't see Charlie as a father so much as a guy he has to live with all of a sudden.
Goyo displays a typical precociousness as Max, dead-set on making the next champion of robot boxing, even if it means occasionally taking advice from the father he's never known.
Evangeline Lilly is hardly needed as Charlie's old friend Bailey, a gym owner whose father was Charlie's trainer when he was still boxing. But, considering how many people are gunning for our hero, he needs all the support in his corner he can get, whether he's dealing with an old rival (Kevin Durand) who aims to get his due from Charlie even if he has to beat it out of him or the venomous team (Olga Fonda, Karl Yune) behind the biggest success of the robot boxing universe, a behemoth appropriately named Zeus.
In this underdog story, as with every one of its kind, it all eventually comes down to the up-and-comer suddenly being thrown in with the best of the best. The main event here has all the elements of the pugilism world's most exceptional fights: James Braddock vs. Max Baer, Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed, Little Mac vs. King Hippo.
But, before obsolete Atom puts up his dukes against ultra-sleek Zeus, we have the undercard bout, and that's what is so troublesome.
The movie's earliest moments paint a very poor impression of its protagonist, making Charlie seem like he has less emotion than the robots he controls, seeking out only the almighty dollar and the next good fight, so much so, he takes a payoff from Max's aunt and uncle (Hope Davis, James Rebhorn).
Yes, there has to be some room for personal growth, but this guy's journey from empty-hearted bachelor who's always on the road to loving, stable papa never seems authentic.
"Real Steel" gets better as it goes along, packing more of a punch as it focuses more on the robots than its human characters.
One might think it would be the other way around, but Charlie and company could use some new upgrades much more than the likes of Atom, Ambush and Noisy Boy.