By Todd Gilchrist | The Playlist September 27, 2011 at 4:00AM
If the maturity and sophistication of “Warrior” is more than you can handle, then “Real Steel” might be the movie for you. A start-to-finish festival of storytelling conventions, director Shawn Levy’s bid for credibility differs only from its predecessor in that it’s aimed at a kid-friendly audience, making its relentless obedience to formula perhaps more acceptable, but less augmented by genuinely great performances. Nevertheless a crowd-pleaser of the first order – even on par with the ‘80s films from folks like Spielberg and Zemeckis that inspire it – “Real Steel” is an effective retelling of a familiar story, albeit one that it might help being ten years old (or having the same mindset) to fully enjoy.
Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a former boxer and robot boxing promoter who’s too obsessed with winning to notice that he’s pretty much a complete loser. After totaling his prize ‘bot in a brawl with a bull, he returns home to discover that in addition to his mounting money woes, his ex-wife has died and he is now responsible for raising their plucky son Max (Dakota Goyo). Secretly brokering a deal to pawn off Max to his ex’s sister (Hope Davis), he agrees to care for the kid while she and her husband (James Rebhorn) vacation in Italy; but after Max catches wind of the scam, he insists on going halfsies with his old man, and the two of them set out on the road to rebuild Charlie’s reputation – not to mention his fortune.
Purchasing a Japanese robot named Noisy Boy, Charlie bets the farm on the former champion, and loses big when he can’t translate its moves into English. But when Max finds an old-school sparring droid named Atom, he and Charlie launch an underground comeback bid, which eventually earns them the attention of the official robot boxing association. As they dispatch one opponent after another, they quickly become an underground sensation in the robot boxing world, eventually finding themselves squaring off against none other than the biggest and baddest robot in the sport, Zeus, whose owner (Olga Fonda) and creator (Karl Yune) they are determined to defeat them at all costs.
Although we joked about “Warrior” above, we actually really enjoyed Gavin O’Connor’s MMA film, perhaps even because of (rather than in spite of) its commitment to exploiting every underdog sports movie convention in cinema history. But as a simplistic celebration of overcoming-adversity clichés, “Real Steel” may have the edge because its aim is to entertain kids, wearing its obviousness on its sleeve rather than disguising it behind performances by actors who by rights are worthy of more complex material than the O’Connor offers them. In a year that’s offered a shameless, derivative Amblin knockoff (“Super 8”) and a worthy Amblin successor (“Attack The Block”), “Real Steel” is the time-capsule copy that supplies both the strengths and shortcomings of the films in its milieu, resulting in a work of entertainment that will be some ten-year-old’s all-time favorite as surely as “The Goonies” or “E.T.” was for ten-year-olds 25 years ago.
To his credit, Hugh Jackman is doing his absolute best Tom Cruise impersonation as Charlie, offering a character who would without hesitation use his son as a bargaining chip to rebuild his life, but who later discovers that he actually cares for the little bastard. The difference between the two actors, however, is that Cruise can easily be a convincing dick, but Jackman doesn’t have the constitution for it. In early scenes, Charlie is callous and indifferent, but much like his rendition of Logan in the “X-Men” and “Wolverine” films, it feels like a tough veneer over a gooey center, and he seems much more comfortable later in the film when he’s given in to the adorableness of Max’s obviously hereditary obstinacy.
Although Levy does a great job integrating the special effects into the story in an unobtrusive and even seamless way, he remains unable to lend a film a discernible personality beyond what exists in the script, and at best “Real Steel” feels like a convincing argument that he’s eminently capable of handling generic mainstream blockbusters. But it also seems unlikely that “Real Steel” was ever going to be more than that, no matter who sat in the director’s chair; it’s hard to imagine that Spielberg himself would have tackled the material differently, much less better, since key to its appeal is playing directly into that melodrama, and then milking it for everything it’s worth.
That said, “not minding” a film hardly sounds like enthusiastic praise, unless of course you’re referring to it in the context of Shawn Levy’s previous work. But the truth is that like those ‘80s films many of us grew up on, and which we watched a million times over on home video and cable television, “Real Steel” feels destined to become a staple in the libraries of kids in this generation. So yes, Levy’s latest works well enough on its own terms to technically deserve to be called a success, but it’s no knockout. [B]