Thursday, October 6, 2011

Review: "Real Steel"

With "Real Steel," I was expecting a slick and soulless bit of computer-generated mayhem. The story is set about a decade or so in the future, where regular human boxing has been outlawed and the only kind allowed is between 2,000-pound robots.

In other words, "Rocky" meets "Transformers."

What I got instead was a tender and treacly tale about a no-account father bonding with his long-lost (well, abandoned) son. If anything, the movie went too far in the other direction from my expectations . Instead of being overly reliant on special effects for cheap action thrills, it's really a somewhat maudlin story with an excess of gooey emotions.

So, "Transformers" meets "The Champ."

Hugh Jackman plays the dad, Charlie Kenton, a former fighter who always went for the knockout -- and got it a lot, but also ended up on the mat a lot. He's much the same as a robot owner/manager, always seeking the big payoff in the big fight when what he really needs is a few sure things under his belt.

Dakota Goyo plays Max, the son he's barely even met. When his mother dies, it's up to the courts to decide if Max goes with Charlie or with his rich aunt (Hope Davis). Charlie extorts 50 grand out of his sister-in-law's husband to give up custody, but not until the end of summer so they can enjoy a swanky European vacation.

It's all just an excuse to get Charlie on the road with Max, hustling fights and trying to keep their last aging robot on its feet. Charlie uses the extortion money to buy a fancy, famous robot named Noisy Boy, but doesn't even bother to learn the functions of the gizmo's voice command system before pitting him against an opponent against which he's clearly overmatched.

Soon Charlie and Max are out of robots, with a killer cowboy named Ricky on their tail for the money he's owed. Ricky is played by Kevin Durand, who can just look into the camera for three seconds and be scary.

Then Max stumbles upon an old rust-bucket robot buried in a junkyard, names him Atom and proceeds to train him with his dad's reluctant help, putting them on an unlikely path to the championship fight.

The best thing about "Real Steel" are the robots, which seem to convincingly occupy the same space as the humans. Using a combination of CGI and animatronics, they're hefty, clanky behemoths that not coincidentally resemble giant versions of the old Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots.

Robot boxing is perhaps the logical evolution of cinematic boxing. People have often complained that more punches are landed in a single round of a movie bout than a dozen real ones -- no human can take such punishment. With mammoth metal automatons, it stands to reason they can take a licking.

Especially Atom. One of the curious things about the story (screenplay by John Gatins, based on a sci-fi story from the 1950s by Richard Matheson) is that Atom's origins remain stubbornly mysterious. He's an older-generation robot, but boasts a few cutting-edge tricks like a "shadow function" that allows him to mimic Charlie's boxing moves. Built as a sparring robot, Atom can take a ton of hits, but is relatively small and weak on offense.

The top champ is a fearsome robot named Zeus, who not only has never lost a fight, but never had an opponent last beyond the first round. Yet Zeus' Russian oligarch owner, Farra Lemcova (Olga Fonda), and Japanese programmer, Tak Mashido (Karl Yune), exchange troubled looks when they lay eyes on Atom, as if a mechanical ghost had just lumbered across their grave.

Director Shawn Levy is a certified lightweight ("Night at the Museum") who always goes for the easiest emotional payoff. But Jackman's lovable as a loser, Goyo has spunk and charm, and the robot battles are genuinely thrilling.

3 stars out of four

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