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Review: “Real Steel”

The Projector

1. Once you've decided to do a fighting robot movie, you have several decisions to make. The good news is that you've already made the most important one: You're making a fighting robot movie! Congratulations: Fighting robots are awesome. Everything else is secondary. Now, you can make a pop lunacy Happy Meal psychedelic mind destructor like the "Transformers," but that's only if you're Michael Bay, and if you're Michael Bay, you're too busy buttoning and unbuttoning your shirt in front of a mirror right now to read this. So forget that. You can turn it into a futuristic war for civilization, good robots fighting bad robots with the existence of the human race at stake. You can turn it into a humanist fable, a Who Is The Real Machine Now? metaphor for technology's creeping dominance in modern civilization. Shoot, in a pinch, you can literally break into Lucasfilm and program 95 minutes of robots beating the lugnuts out of each other, without context, motivation or narrative. People would eat that up; I'd eat that up. Or you can do what "Real Steel" does: You can turn it into a kid's movie.

2. "Real Steel" has scenes of fighting robots, and they are impressive, as far as they go: The movie, somewhat cleverly, imagines a universe of robots that are essentially professional wrestlers, who fight in the World Robot Boxing circuit, with names like "Midas," "Ambush" and "Noisy Boy." There's also an underground circuit, in which unproven or past-their-prime robots fight for whatever crash they can scrape up. You can work your way up, if you win the right fights, if the right promoter spots you. In other words: It's like human boxing now, only less corrupt. Now, robots, not being sentient beings, don't have much need for cash, which is why there are so many damn humans in this movie. "Real Steel" has too many humans. It wants you to get behind the inspiring story of a fighting underdog robot via the humans who "care" so much for it. But can a robot be an underdog? Isn't that sort of like cheering for the ping-pong balls in the lottery?

3. The movie lays it on thick, though, with Hugh Jackman mustering up every rogue charm cliche in the book to play Charlie, a robot boxing promoter who lives out of a van and constantly owes somebody money, somebody who's always looking to beat the cash out of him. (Humans only fight out of rage or credit in this movie; they leave the show-fighting to the robots.) Charlie, in a rather lazy conceit, discovers that his son, whom he's only met once, just lost his mother (you never find out how she dies, or even hear her name or see here; she's just "dead parent" so we can get onto the plot), and Charlie needs to show up and sign off on his rich aunt (Hope Davis, for some reason) to take care of him. As you might suspect, Charlie and the boy share a love for robot boxing, and once they've discovered an old "sparring bot" named Atom, a decade of parenting neglect is forgotten in a rags-to-riches tale of metal violence.

4. This is all incredibly silly, and the father-son business is handled in such a hokey manner that you'll find yourself tapping your foot waiting for people to stop talking so the robots might start punching each other again. It's sort of amusing, watching "Real Steel" contort itself into sports movie tropes that you wouldn't think would be possible in a movie about boxing robots. I understand why Atom would need to mimic Charlie's boxing moves; his programming allows him to complete any move he watches someone make. (Oh, Charlie's a former boxer, so you can probably guess where that's going.) I do not understand, however, why Atom would need to train, let alone necessitate a training montage. But this movie sneaks one in anyway, because we expect it, because this movie wants to be "Rocky" with robots so badly that I'm honestly surprised they didn't spring for rights to the Survivor song. Except with a cute kid, which I guess makes it "The Champ." Except robots can't die. "Real Steel" is undiscriminating in its derivativeness.

5. Charlie's storyline is ridiculous -- the movie undersells his louse-ness as a father and then oversells the inspiration of him finally "getting it" -- but Jackman pulls out every trick in the book; Charlie's a huckster, then a lover, then a dad, then a champion, and you can sort of see Jackman sweating trying to keep it all moving. It doesn't help that the kid who plays his son is from the Cute Kid 101 school, not so much acting as batting his eyes and mugging like he's in a commercial for some sugary cereal. The whole thing culminates in, of course, a Big Fight, completely with villains and underdogs and a whole crowd chanting Atom's name. Director Shawn Levy is a pro, and he milks this for all it's worth, and it's tempting to just give yourself over to the hokeyness of it all. But then you remember that this was supposed to be a movie about fighting robots, and instead it turned into a little kid hanging out with his dad and a big metal friend. I shouldn't have to say this -- this is a movie called "Real Steel," for crying out loud! -- but seriously, this movie about robot boxing needs a lot more robot boxing.

Grade: C+