Though set in a future where boxing has gotten so intense only high-tech robots have what it takes to compete, “Real Steel” still trusts a good, old-fashioned father-son drama to deliver the thrills. Like the high-fructose-laced soda given front-and-center product placement, this underdog sports story is sweet and corny — but in just the right measure to satisfy the masses, especially 10-year-old boys and NASCAR dads who never lost touch with their inner-child. An intense 11th-hour marketing push should buy the opening, giving Hugh Jackman a big non-“X-Men” hit, while putting junior co-star Dakota Goyo on the grid.
Goyo plays 11-year-old Max, a Dr. Pepper-chugging, videogame-obsessed urchin who shows up at the breaking point in the career of his estranged father, onetime heavyweight contender Charlie Kenton (Jackman). While Jackman is clearly the bigger star, “Real Steel” so deeply identifies with Max’s point of view, there can be no question the pic was engineered to appeal to younger auds.
Although online reactions have mistaken “Real Steel” as a live-action version of the Rock’em Sock’em Robots game, pic’s actual inspiration was Richard Matheson’s hardscrabble short story “Steel,” previously adapted as an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” The addition of the kid character is just one of many departures in an approach that borrows the robot-boxing concept but little else from its pulp source material.
Consistent with director Shawn Levy’s “Night at the Museum” series, “Real Steel” exploits the tension between a deadbeat dad and his estranged son, serving up some serious wish fulfillment on the way to reconciliation between the generations. John Gatins’ screenplay (with story credit going to Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven) is almost merciless in its presentation of the flawed father figure: Jackman plays an alarmingly selfish con man who owes his creditors nearly $100,000 and who sells custody of his son for the same sum.
After Charlie sees his last robot reduced to scrap metal during a rodeo run-in with a bull, the empty-handed opportunist shows up in court to sign away Max to his aunt (Hope Davis) and her filthy-rich husband (James Rebhorn). Since the kid’s guardians-to-be have a fancy trip planned, Charlie reluctantly agrees to take care of Max for a month or so — just enough time for a change of heart to occur.
Like a 21st-century Bogart (with considerably better physique and teeth), Jackman has mastered the art of affable surliness. Goyo holds his own against the star, though Levy uses the adorable young man more for cheek-pinching appeal than to create a well-rounded character. While widescreen lensing allows for more visual audacity than his previous features, TV-trained Levy loves closeups — a tactic that plays better on homevideo than Imax screens — and Goyo’s the kind of dewy-eyed child actor on whom he can rely for emotional cutaways.
As it happens, “Real Steel’s” most endearing character isn’t human at all, but an obsolete second-generation robot named Atom. With neon-blue eyes glowing behind what looks like a mesh fencing mask, Atom appears to be more alive than the gleaming, cutting-edge counterparts he faces in the ring. “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me,” Max tells him, though pic leaves it alluringly open-ended what that “secret” might be — just as it allows for the possibility that Charlie may not be Max’s actual father.
Far less ambiguous is the analogy between Atom’s origins (after Dad destroys two expensive fighting bots, Max digs the battered droid out of the mud in a dangerous landfill raid) and the scrappy status of his two trainers. Charlie has all but discarded his young charge, and he’s not far from being tossed out of the small-time circuit himself. Still, something about this soulful robot — who takes a beating but refuses to stay down — inspires them to challenge the champ of the World Robot Boxing League, an autonomous, constantly evolving pile driver named Zeus.
Such attention to character makes it easy to understand why the story would connect with young auds. The uncanny thing about “Real Steel” is just how gripping the fight scenes are; Sugar Ray Leonard served as a consultant to the motion-capture performers responsible for pantomiming the machines’ moves. Atom is unique in that he features a “shadow mode,” further anthropomorphizing the character as the bot learns to mimic the moves of its trainer.
As future-set stories go, the pic doesn’t alter much about the present. Instead, Levy celebrates the truck-driving, can-do spirit of the heartland, adapting exec producer Steven Spielberg’s all-American attitude to a more blue-collar crowd. Seamless visual effects and heavy-duty sound design complete the illusion of fast-moving fighting machines, while Danny Elfman’s inspirational score leaves no heartstring unstrummed.