'Real Steel': A Sweet Father-Son Tale Disguised as Big, Dumb Robot Fun

There's an emotional wallop to this slick, Hollywood story about boxing bots

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There's something to be said for lowering your standards in favor of a good time. Real Steel, the new CGI-robot slugfest starring Hugh Jackman, is everything the modern intelligent film-goer should stand against: clichés piled on clichés, gratuitous product placement, prefabricated characters, tired pop culture references (Look at the robots do "The Robot"!), and plot lines that steal liberally from the nearly exhausted canon of the down-on-his-luck-ex-fighter. But if viewers can temporarily forget about the existence of Rocky, The Champ, Terminator 2, The Wrestler, or Over the Top, they may find themselves cracking a smile, and even getting a little choked up, at a heart-warming father-son-robot bonding tale.

Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a former heavyweight forced to into retirement by the rise of robot boxing, a new-age craze where remote-controlled, 2,000-pound steel gladiators hammer one another to bits in the ring for the pleasure of the hooting masses. Charlie has no choice but to accept this new reality and, like an astronaut resigned to coaching NASCAR, spends his days glumly traversing middle-America in his mobile workshop, making scratch on exhibition robot fights at county fairs. Charlie is content to wake up every day underneath a pile of empty (and carefully displayed) Budweisers until a lawyer shows up and drops his estranged 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), on his doorstep. Max's mother has passed away, leaving him in Charlie's hands.

Real Steel avoids outright commentary on our obsession with technology, violence, or man's future as an obsolete piece of organic machinery. Instead it's content with a simpler message: Good parents play with their kids. Truthfully, the film could have swapped robot boxing for a soapbox derby and the essentials would remain intact. Charlie fears responsibility. Max is wary of the man who abandoned him as a child. Only through their shared love of boxing (robot or otherwise) can they learn to trust and eventually love each other. Together the two reconstruct and train an old sparring robot called Atom and take him out on the road where they bond in the confines of Charlie's truck as though it were a backyard camp out. Jackman is not Oscar material, but what he lacks in skill he makes up for in enthusiasm. When Charlie finally asks Max for forgiveness, Jackman looks like he's trying to summon tears. They don't come. But his effort is endearing enough.

Real Steel succeeds where so many CGI battle flicks fail by putting some emotional weight behind the blows, so much so that despite the predictable pacing of the final underdog-vs.-undefeated-champion bout, there still exists the breathless tension that's the hallmark of all good fighting flicks. If robots do someday rise up and squash humanity, we'd be lucky to have these guys as our new overlords. At least they have some heart.

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Daniel D. Snyder is a writer based in New Mexico.

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