Real Steel may have a hardened outer shell, but it’s pure marshmallow on the inside. This kids’ film mixes the heart of Rocky and dozens of other come-from-behind boxing dramas with the geeky gadget gestalt of films like The Transformers and Star Wars. Thinly derived from a Richard Matheson short story, Real Steel is set in a debased near-future in which robot boxing has become all the rage. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a former champion boxer who now makes a bad living as a hustler of robot matches. The film’s opening scenes establish that he’s welshed on many debts and unlikely to hit a big payday with any of the third-rate tin cans he puts into the ring. He’s a gruff, unlikable guy, and when he’s informed of his long-lost son whose mother has just died, Charlie makes self-serving financial arrangements for the boy’s care. The terms of that arrangement allow him to purchase an old sparring robot named Atom, although he must also become the guardian of his son Max (Dakota Goyo) for the summer.
It comes as no surprise to anyone but Charlie that he and his son bond before the summer is through. The film’s predictability is a serious drawback. Jackman infuses Charlie with a kinetic energy that’s compelling to watch, and young Goyo has a sweet and spunky charm that resists most of the cloying attributes that hamper most child actors. Lost’s Evangeline Lilly remains lost, however, in this film role as Charlies’s too-good-to-be-true romantic interest. Night at the Museum director Shawn Levy hits all the right notes that should guarantee the film’s appeal to young and old joystick junkies who, despite outward appearances, harbor sentimental hearts.
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