Sure, "Real Steel" is a movie about fathers and sons, about growing up and growing old, about redemption and perseverance and believing in yourself even when no one else does. But mostly it's a movie about robots.
And not just any robots either. Giant-sized, multicolored robots that bleed piston oil and punch each other's lights out and heads off in boxing rings.
If hard-hitting robot battles are your thing, you'll love it. If not, well, look elsewhere, because endless, colorful variations on ringside robo-a-robo are this movie's reason for being. Go for the robots, stay for the robots. The rest is filler.
That filler stars Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a past-his-prime fighter in a near future that's virtually indistinguishable from the present except for the presence of a popular new sport, robot boxing. Charlie made a career out of maneuvering oversized robotic pounders to victory by remote control. When the movie starts, he's running raggedy 'bots through county-fair death-matches in hopes of putting together enough money to buy a real robot, and make a last play for the big time.
Thanks to his star-making gig as Wolverine in the "X-Men" films, Mr. Jackman is frequently cast in grizzled tough-guy roles that suggest a rugged ruthlessness. But Mr. Jackman, whose acting roots are in musical theater, is best when allowed to balance gruffness with levity, sneer with smirk.
"Real Steel" casts him in this lighter mode as a selfish schemer of ill-repute who somehow cannot help but engage in frequent acts of decency. Those acts don't come without provocation, however — mostly from his long-neglected son, Max (Dakota Goyo), who is delivered into his father's care after his mother dies.
Max checks off the precocious-movie-kid boxes sufficiently: He's cute, sullen, sarcastic, and a little too robot-boxing savvy, conveniently capable of becoming a professional-level robot-boxing jock with minimal outside help after rescuing an old sparring bot from a junk pile. Inevitably, with the help of robot repair-girl Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), Max and Charlie end up clanking up the route to robot-boxing stardom, punching their way through an underground circuit of anything-goes matches all the way up to the big leagues.
No doubt the movie began as little more than an amusing elevator pitch — rock 'em sock 'em robots meet "Rocky." It might sound like a joke, or a satire of Hollywood's penchant for ever-more-derivative commercial schlock. What's surprising, though, is how well executed the movie is in spite of its gimmicky concept.
There's never any doubt what will happen — "Real Steel" sticks faithfully and energetically to the conventions of the underdog sports movie. But it is the rare genre film that gives you exactly what you want, exactly how you want it: Lots of flashy robot fighting, a solid progression of challenges, and plenty of sparky banter between Max and Charlie — though not so much that it distracts from the robot showdowns that are the main event.
"It's just a show, Max. People want to see something they've never seen," Charlie tells his son at one point. Aside from its fanciful assortment of metallic bruisers, which resembles a great unmade toy line, "Real Steel's" formulaic success story offers little that audiences haven't seen before. But it's a good show anyway — especially if you like robots.
TITLE: "Real Steel"
CREDITS: Directed by Shawn Levy, screenplay by John Gatkins based on a story by Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven
RATING: PG-13 for mild profanity, robot mayhem
RUNNING TIME: 127 Minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS