Hugh Jackman, left, gives instructions to a robot boxer as his on-screen… (DreamWorks )
"Real Steel" is "Rocky" with robots that look like "Transformers," managed by a "Raging Bull" washout in need of a "Cinderella Man" comeback that's complicated by "The Champ" and "Paper Moon" sorts of parent-child issues, with a sweet bit of "Wall-E"-styled scrap metal who never pulls his punches. Perhaps "Reel Steal" would be the better title.
As it happens, this recycled reclamation of underdogs saga is neither as bad as it sounds nor quite as good as it could be, although the 9-year-old bruiser next to me pummeled the armrest, spilled his soda and screamed "awesome" through every one of the fight scenes. I took that for an endorsement, one I think the family film crowd not bothered by a little rough language will second.
The film stars Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo and Atom as, respectively, the-down-on-his-luck-former-boxer-turned-fighting-robot manager, the almost-given-up-on-romance-but-I-can-fix-any-broken-bot-you-drag-in-here beauty, the I-wish-I-had-a-better-dad-but-at-least-he's-in-the-robot-game kid and the won't-someone-just-believe-in-me blue-eyed boxing bot.
Out of that lineup the name to remember is Goyo's. He's a cheeky Canadian youngster with soulful eyes that move from mischief to sadness with a remarkable ease. Earlier this year, he nailed the fierce action opening of "Thor" as boy Thor. In the role of 11-year-old, newly motherless Max, he is the saving grace of "Real Steel," helping not only to bring out the humanity in Atom — Max just knows the bot has the circuitry of a champion — but sparking a flicker of life in Jackman, who's had a tough time getting his acting to outshine his muscle-flexing prowess and his model good looks (see the "X-Men" franchise for the first, celebrity fashion spreads for the rest).
Director Shawn Levy, of course, deserves some of the credit for what works (and blame for what doesn't). As a filmmaker, Levy has specialized in comedy, typically bringing a certain polish and proficiency, but not the panache ("Date Night," "Night at the Museum"). With "Real Steel," he moves into the action game. Maybe metal should be his métier, because Levy, with Sugar Ray Leonard adding some punch to the boxing sequences, makes you actually care about the robots, or at least Atom.
Despite all the threads that seem plucked from other films, "Real Steel" was inspired by a 1963 "Twilight Zone" episode based a sci-fi short story by Richard Matheson. Writer John Gatins, who has a string of hard-knocks redemption stories to his credit, adapted it for the big screen and does a decent job of keeping the dialogue lean and mean, which helps because the plot's so predictable.
The time frame has been slightly fast-forwarded to 2020 and from the looks of it the economy has only gotten worse, with veteran cinematographer Mauro Fiore ("Avatar") capturing a down-market Americana that feels depressingly real. Meanwhile, mass entertainment has gone to extremes, replacing hard bodies with steel robots so that boxing can be even more brutal. Like video games, humans hold the controls, they just don't have to feel the pain.
Charlie (Jackman) is a consistent loser on the circuit, carting around his bots — and pieces — in an 18-wheeler, making bad bets and usually running out rather than paying up. The one slip-up that surprises him is Max, the son he fathered and had forgotten.
The kid's aunt (Hope Davis) wants custody; her rich beau (James Rebhorn) wants a kid-free trip to Europe, and Charlie wants to make a fast buck. So a backroom deal puts money in Charlie's hands and Max in his care for the summer. The kid's no pushover, he wants a piece of Charlie's take, and after he discovers Atom in a garbage dump, this young bot boxing fanatic wants a shot at getting his guy into the game. And thus the journey toward enlightenment begins.
It's a grungy world of double-dealing with villains of various stripes, the requisite fighting foes to root against with the two-headed Twin Cities, the weirdest; the high-tech monstrous Zeus, the best. The fights do go on and on, but they're more exciting to watch than what Michael Bay's managed with "Transformers."
As Charlie, Jackman is mostly surface gloss — he knows how to work a greasy tee and a bad attitude, glaring and growling at everyone. He softens slightly with Lilly's Bailey (so nice to see her bruised, buff beauty back since "Lost" wrapped). But it is with Goyo that Jackman warms up. Their father-son spats, truly some of the film's best sparring, is what gives it heart. Not "Rocky" heart, or "Raging Bull" heart, mind you, but "Real" enough.