Bizarre tale from the future

Michael Phillips | Boulder Weekly

Real Steel, a tale of a boy and his metallic 8-foot man-pet, may well drill past its own tin-plated inanities and strike gold, or oil, or something. My kid wants to see it; therefore I think it’ll be a hit.

So much for the science and metrics of box office predictions.

We have several films here waging a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em slugfest for dominance. Primarily we have a boxing picture, complete with father-son issues and a climax designed not simply to warm your heart but roast it on an open fire, welded to speculative fiction set in the near-future, thus handing the audience the screwiest genre mash-up since Cowboys & Aliens.

This one, though, has a clearer audience in mind: everybody who paid money to see a Transformers film and now wants to see a sweeter variation, with less destructive, more companionable robots. (Steven Spielberg served as executive producer on Real Steel, as he did on Transformers.)

Based a tiny bit on Richard Matheson’s 1956 short story, and a later Twilight Zone episode starring Lee Marvin, Real Steel stars Hugh Jackman as Charlie, ex-fighter and deadbeat dad who hasn’t seen his offspring in years. The year is 2020. Human boxing is no longer; robot boxing rules. Circumstances dump the sullen preteen Max (Dakota Goyo, who comports himself like a smart-mouth Industry Kid) into Charlie’s lap for a two-month period. This comes at a career low for our antihero; Charlie’s reduced to touring the fairground circuit with his humanoid boxing robot, which is first seen in action getting pummeled into stray parts by a wild bull.

Director Shawn Levy isn’t going for action comedy foremost, as he did in the Night at the Museum films; he’s after a wider emotional range, and a broken-family story that amounts to something. Figuratively and literally, Jackman’s in there, slugging, from the start. First as wary companions, then as loving blood relatives, Charlie and Max prepare their junkyard robot, named Atom, for battle against a Russian-owned, Japanese-designed force of destruction in the World Robot Boxing League. We watch and wait for these stray parts to become whole. Evangeline Lilly, as the daughter of Charlie’s trainer, sports a set of biceps roughly comparable to Jackman’s, so you know things will work out for her, surrogate mom-wise.

I suspect a lot of what I found synthetic and sort of galling in Real Steel will work just fine with the target audience. The key image in the film is that of Charlie or Max or their competitors either voice- or joystick-controlling their bots in the ring. After a while it’s like watching someone else hack around with an Xbox while you sit there with your popcorn. Even its fans might concede Real Steel goes on a bit (126 minutes). They might also concede the racism of the climactic setup, with the sniveling foreign-born adversaries squaring off against stalwart American brawn, in the person of everybody’s favorite Australian.

—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond: