Set in a not-so-distant future where human fisticuffs are now passé and the new craze is all robot-boxing,Real Steel stars Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a washed-up ex-pugilist who struggles to make a living from getting his low-end robots into underground fights. Brash and shortsighted, Charlie pits his mechanical fighters against rivals that are impossible to defeat; no wonder he’s buried in debt, and each of his robots badly destroyed. Just when things can’t possibly get any worse, he’s burdened with the responsibility of his estranged 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo), a stubborn kid who insists that Charlie rebuild an outdated scrap-yard robot named Atom, and train him for the fight circuit.
Directed by Night at the Museum’s Shawn Levy and produced by Steven Spielberg, Real Steel is equal parts noisy action movie, and father-son bonding drama. The boxing scenes are thrillingly filmed, including a classic David vs Goliath climax; it’s the film’s emotional journey that feels like pure cheese. Borrowing its blueprint from the classic sports film The Champ, father and son resolve their differences, the kid becomes a partner, his dad grows up, and everyone turns into a better person.
A less charismatic actor might have collapsed under the weight of such formulaic writing, but Hugh Jackman holds on to his dignity till the very end, where he feeds every move to Atom by shadow boxing. Dakota Goyo has some endearing moments as the precocious Max, especially those bits where he teaches Atom some nifty dance steps. But if Real Steel works, it’s purely and singularly on the strength of its hulking metal warriors that pack a solid, determined punch.
I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Real Steel. The thunderous action alone makes up for the strictly standard storytelling.