Real Steel gets a little too sappy, is just a little too corny, and has way too much of the dreaded precocious kid element in it which wastes the intriguing set-up. In the near future humans have been replaced in the ring by robot boxers which, when you consider the sport's brutality, isn't such a bad idea. Washed up ex-fighter Charlie (Jackman) is a small fish in a big pond in the robot boxing world, carting around his late model robot and stopping in small towns to take on all sorts of opponents (including a bull). He's irresponsible, runs out on all his debts, and is so hard up for cash that when he finds out his ex-girlfriend has died leaving him with custody of the son (played by Dakota Goyo) he never visited, he's willing to sell away his parental rights for $100,000 to his ex's rich sister's husband without her knowing. He's a cad, a low-life, a real loser, but because Jackman's playing him, we cut him a little slack and are supposed to laugh off his rascally ways.
Agreeing to keep the kid, Max, for the summer - for $50,000 - so that the boy's aunt and uncle can go on vacation, Charlie winds up saddled with a youngster who's 11 going on 30. He's more intelligent than his dad, has better powers of deductive reasoning, and although he's only been around the world of running robot boxing for a day, he's ready to enter the big leagues. Because, you know, he's one of those movie kids who's got life all figured out and will have no problem explaining it to the adults in order to move the film's plot forward.
After salvaging a rusted, old school robot from a junkyard, Max and Charlie get back out on the road, leaving behind Charlie's best friend in the world (actually, his only friend in the world), Bailey Tallet (played by Evangeline Lilly). Bailey inherited the gym where Charlie used to train as a young whippersnapper, and the affection she feels for her deceased dad's favorite student hasn't waned - despite the fact she's nearly going bankrupt and Charlie refuses to pay his bill. But Bailey's not in this story to actually be a strong female character; she's involved only to repair the relationship between father and son while helping the audience see that Charlie hasn't always been such a bad guy.
And as the father and son travel around the boxing circuit meeting colorful human and metal characters, the gap between them begins to close, thanks to the bond formed by training their robot boxer together. Oh, and Max even gets to teach his robot some hip-hop dance moves which, after the first little musical number, become extremely annoying to watch.
The Bottom Line
Director Shawn Levy (the Night at the Museum films) has a good eye for what works in an action film, and Real Steel's CGI boxing scenes are quite entertaining. However, when the story concentrates on the humans interacting, Real Steel loses its rhythm.
There's an uncomfortable amount of forced sentimentality wedged into the father and son bonding angle, and the dialogue overall feels sanitized for family audiences - which is understandable, though regrettable, in that the family audience is the intended target for Real Steel. Because this is as squeaky clean as a boxing film can be and because the outcome can be predicted from minute one, there's a flatness to the production that made me actually tune out off and on, fully paying attention only when the focus returned to the action in the ring. And I have to point out this is unusual as I'm neither a boxing fan nor am I particularly into robots. The human characters just weren't as compelling as the robot boxers.
The cast, led by Hugh Jackman, are all fine, and the CG action is seamlessly integrated into the film. But Real Steel just doesn't score a knock-out. It's the undercard you're forced to sit through in order to get to the real main event, which, in this case, just never materializes.
Real Steel was directed by Shawn Levy and is rated PG-13 for some violence, intense action and brief language.
Theatrical Release: October 7, 2011