Real Steel might look from promotional materials like it’s simple genre mayhem, but in a weird way it’s almost experimental cinema. The experiment is this: How many crowd-pleasing formulas can you stuff into one narrative and still have it work on some basic level?
The answer: Surprisingly many. Set in a near-future America, it casts Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a one-time boxer rendered obsolete by the development of mechanical pugilists to allow for larger-scale mayhem. Now reduced to barnstorming through county fairs and underground gyms as a trainer of whatever robot he can patch together, he lands an unexpected tag-along in Max (Dakota Goyo), the 11-year-old son he barely knows. But Max could be his ticket to the big-time when they salvage an obsolete robot fighter called Atom and begin a climb through the ranks.
If you’re scoring at home, that makes Real Steel at minimum a combination of Surly Loner Who Learns to Love By Caring for a Child, Underdog Sports Drama and Boy and His Dog, the latter as Max bonds with Atom as a sort of surrogate for Charlie. Tender moments fight for time with winning-streak montages, the big showdown between Atom and the electronic Mike Tyson called Zeus doubling as cathartic emotional connection. Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) does everything except slice an onion under your nose to try to get the tears flowing.
And it’s a lively ride almost in spite of so much calculation. The rock’em, sock’em battles are energetically staged, and Goyo has some terrific moments as counterpoint to Jackman’s inveterate loser. If Levy and his screenwriters had eased up on the saccharine just a touch, the raucous fun might have had more of chance to shine through. As it stands, it’s still a more satisfying big-robots-beat-the-crap-out-of-one-another adventure than any given Transformers—and a boy and his dad get to share a big hug, to boot.
Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly