Monday, October 24, 2011


The exuberant Hugh Jackson robotic slug-fest "Real Steel" (*** OUT OF ****) punches all the right buttons. Synthesize two classic boxing epics like "Rocky" (1976) and "The Champ" (1931), and you’ll have a fair idea what to expect from this feel-good, formulaic, PG-13 rated, fodder about an estranged father and son who rescue a robot from the scrap heap. "Real Steel" takes place in the near future when crowds prefer to watch colossal, cybernetic palookas pummel each other into spare parts. The concept that man can no longer participate in simulated violence via sports is a tantalizing prospect, but "Night at the Museum" director Shawn Levy doesn't preoccupy himself with such lofty ideas. Instead, he focuses primarily on a troubled father and son relationship. Meantime, Levy reminds us that a better human always stands behind every good 20-foot metal behemoth in the ring. Inspired partially by the Marx Toy Company game ‘Rock'em Sock'em Robots’ marketed in 1964, "Coach Carter" scribe John Gatins also drew on "I Am Legend" sci-fi author Richard Matheson’s 1956 short story "Steel." Mind you, this isn’t the first time Matheson’s tale has been adapted. Lee Marvin played the boxing robot’s owner in an episode of Rod Serling's landmark television series "The Twilight Zone." In Matheson’s tale as well as the “Twilight Zone” episode, the robot’s manager had no son, and he masqueraded as the robot after it malfunctioned before the match. Consequently, Levy and his scenarists have made some major changes. Nevertheless, the charisma of the “Real Steel” cast stokes this tearjerker with so much sentiment that you’ll shadow box with our hero and tear up as father and son bond. What makes this reversal of character so dramatic is the change that sweeps over our repellent hero and makes him sympathetic.

Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman of “Swordfish”) is a washed-up pugilist who is his own worst enemy. He owes gambling debts to more people than he can remember. Charlie makes bets that he cannot cover with his robot named ‘Ambush’ because he believes “Ambush” will triumph. Naturally, Charlie has to dodge obnoxious louts, especially Ricky (Kevin Durand of “Legion”), a shady promoter, who lures our hero to a rural country fair. Charlie pits ‘Ambush’ against Ricky’s prize bull Black Thunder. Imagine Charlie’s incredulity when Black Thunder pulverizes ‘Ambush.’ Not only is Charlie out of a bot, but also he owes Ricky $20-thousand that he doesn’t have. If things weren’t appalling enough for him, Charlie must contend with another problem in the person of his 11-year old son Max (Dakota Goyo of “Thor”), who he walked out on when he split from his wife. Max lives to play video games and chug Dr. Pepper. Yes, “Real Steel” features some of the most blatant product placement in a long time. Irresponsible as Charlie is, the former heavyweight is prepared to sign away custody of Max to the latter’s Aunt Debra (Hope Davis of “Arlington Road”) and Uncle Marvin (James Rebhorn of “Independence Day”), but only for a price. Charlie negotiates with Marvin for $100-thousand, with half of the loot up front. The catch is Charlie must take care of Max for three months, while Marvin and Debra enjoy a second honeymoon.

Initially, neither Charlie nor Max has much use for each other. Charlie squanders Marvin’s cash on a second-hand World Robot Boxing league automaton, ‘Noisy Boy,’ who predictably gets the robotics beaten out of him by another bot called ‘Midas.’ Charlie tucks his tail between his legs along with the ‘Noisy Boy’s’ remains, and Max and he slink away. Later, they sneak into a robot junkyard which Charlie plans to plunder for anything worthwhile. During their search, Max literally stumbles upon a Generation 2 robot named Atom that saves his life when the youth stumbles off a ledge. Reluctantly, Charlie helps Max unearth what is nothing more than a sparring robot. Actually, this bot bears an amazing resemblance to “Star Wars” bots on planet Tatooine. Our protagonists cannibalize ‘Noisy Boy’ and convert the scrap-heap android into a contender. Actually, Atom emerges as a “Rocky” type because it can absorb as much punishment as a sadomasochistic maniac. After Atom wins several bouts that nobody thought it would survive, Max challenges the WRB’s undefeated champ Zeus. This sinister black android is the property of a wealthy Russian babe, Farra Lemkova (Olga Fonda of “Little Fockers”), and an arrogant Japanese designer, Tak Mashido (Karl Yune of “Freezerburn”), who abhor having terms dictated to them. Initially, they ignore Max’s challenge, but pressure forces them to cave. During the big fight, Atom is battered so badly that our heroes cannot communicate with him, so they have to fall back on visual communication. Literally, Charlie must show the underdog bot when and where to land his blows for maximum impact.

The chemistry between Hugh Jackman and Dakota Goyo is so genuine that you believe they are father and son. Not since Mickey Rourke played a similar role in “The Wrestler” has a hero so risen from the depths of degeneracy. Basically, Charlie deserves everything rotten that wrecks his life until he meets Max. Indeed, the last thing our hard-bitten hero learns is that he is a sucker for his long lost son. Of course, anybody who has seen this kind of melodramatic nonsense knows that it is strictly formula from fade-in to fade-out: father finds son, father loses son, father wins son back. Atom brings these two together for a common cause, and they respect each other as equals while they struggle to make their bot the best. Surprisingly, the Generation 2 robot that they rebuild as they rebuild their own relationship never acquires sentience. In one scene, Atom seems to recognize itself as it gazes into a mirror, but Levy does nothing with this subplot. Meantime, he undercuts the romance between Evangeline Lilly and Jackman because "Real Steel" concentrates on Charlie, Max, and Atom. Kevin Durand stands out as the villainous Rick who eventually gets his comeuppance. “Real Steel” will keep you rooting throughout its exhilarating 127 minutes.