Real Steel is a movie about robot boxing. I don't know what kind of pictures that premise puts in your mind, but I can tell you that personally, I don't envision lame father-son melodrama. Directed by Shawn Levy, the man behind the triumphant Night at the Museum franchise and the miraculously mediocre Steve Carell/Tina Fey vehicle Date Night, Real Steel is manipulative, uninspired, and occasionally obnoxious over the course of its 127 minutes.
Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a world-class deadbeat who scrapes together the minimum amount of living from whatever fights he can get. When the movie opens, Charlie is having his robot awkwardly fight a live steer, which distracted me momentarily while I thought of how many weird animal abuse laws a fight like that might be breaking. When his robot is inevitably destroyed (because, hey, the movie isn't going to kill the bull), Charlie finds himself in a real bind, owing money to an untold number of people and lacking a robot to earn him any. Thankfully, his old girlfriend dies, leaving behind his eleven-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo), who his former sister-in-law Debra (Hope Davis) desperately wants to raise. He makes a secret deal with her rich husband Marvin (James Rebhorn): sign over the guardian rights, and he'll get $50k to watch the kid over the summer while they're vacationing in Italy, and another $50k when he drops the kid off at their place in New York.
Although it's sort of commendable that the writers have made Charlie into a genuine asshole instead of the deadbeat dad equivalent of the "ugly" girl with glasses and a ponytail, it doesn't really make much of a difference, because it's still inevitable that the pair will bond over the summer as they drive around getting into robot fights. Although Charlie frequently yells at him, the kid does "cute" things to make the audience laugh (some of which are tolerable, most of which are useless, and some of which are utterly insufferable), and Charlie begins to recognize a little of himself in the kid oh my God will someone please hit me with a sledgehammer. Just in case this nonsense isn't heart-tugging and stomach-churning enough, Levy throws all sorts of golden-dusk lighting and soft rock on the soundtrack while the pair drives across the American midwest. Flashes of Over the Top flickered through my mind, except Real Steel has considerably less awareness that it is ridiculous.
All of this bonding really kicks into high gear when Max rescues a robot from a junkyard. With the help of Charlie's friend/flame Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), they determine that the robot (which has the name "Atom" inscribed on its chest) is an old sparring robot, designed to take hits but without much offensive power. Nonetheless, Max manages to talk his way into a really shady underground match at a place called "The Zoo," where he begins a "surprising" winning streak with his underdog fighter. In very short bursts, the movie will coast for a few minutes on the kind of goodwill any underdog movie with a shred of talent manages to drum up (especially in an easy mark like myself), but then Levy throws in a shot of Lilly or the kid crying, shattering the illusion and leaving the viewer feeling used.
There are some small bright(er) spots around the edges of the film, like Anthony Mackie as a robot-fight bookie (who apparently has the free time and money to go wherever the hell he likes because the movie keeps dropping him in), Davis and Rebhorn are enjoyable to see on screen, as always, and -- for the brief amount of time it actually occurs -- the robot-on-robot fighting is pretty neat, if only because the special effects are impeccable. Still, the movie is disingenuous. If I may dip into metaphors, as one usually does as a movie critic, it's as cold and mechanical as the robots on screen, and about as subtle as a right hook to the jaw. And if you don't like that pun, wait 'till you see what the kid says when Hugh Jackman asks what the kid ever really wanted from him.
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