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Rocky the Robot would have been the most accurate title for this bot-boxing melodrama, which feels like a mashup of spare parts from Transformers, The Champ, Star Wars and Sylvester Stallone’s series, among other cash cows of various vintages. Attempting to tell a heartwarming tale of the redemption of a washed-up fighter in a sports world dominated by metal-crunching mechanical pugilists, this punishingly predictable tale will test whether sci-fi action fanboys can stomach having their cherished genre infiltrated by sentimental hokum about a down-on-his-luck dad and his spunky long-lost son. The likeliest box-office outlook is a split decision.
Guided by a large and august creative team seemingly dedicated to making a film without a speck of originality, this DreamWorks production for Disney is based on the 1956 short story “Steel” by Richard Matheson, who seven years later adapted it for an episode of The Twilight Zone. In it, Lee Marvin starred as a former boxer who, in a future world (1974) in which human boxing has been outlawed and replaced by android combatants, disguises himself as a robot to fight a mechanical opponent.
With Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks on board, the Transformers connection is felt heavily, even if the bots are neither so enormous nor numerous. In fact, the first ramshackle tin can of a fighter promoted by bottom-feeding hustler Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) isn’t even strong enough to put up a fight against a live bull at a Western county fair in the film’s opening action sequence.
As close to the gutter as Mickey Rourke was at his ebb in The Wrestler, Charlie is crude, argumentative and dumb. He’s not even sensitive, willing to care temporarily for his 11-year-old son by an ex-girlfriend who has just died only in exchange for cash. Abusive toward the kid, Charlie lucks out in that the great-looking blond boy, Max (Dakota Goyo), is a whiz with machinery, just the guy to help bring a robot to fighting trim.
Greeting Max’s efforts at seeking love and approval with gruff rejection, Charlie scrapes up some low-end bouts, first with a bot that gets destroyed then with a makeshift old sparring robot named Atom that looks like it belongs on Tatooine. After a couple of amazing victories, the relatively slight machine with bright-red eyes acquires a following, and father and son eye a long-shot match against the undefeated Zeus, a towering black thing controlled by a filthy-rich Russian superfox (Olga Fonda) and a vain Japanese designer (Karl Yune).
It goes without saying that gruff Charlie eventually will succumb to his inner dad and embrace Max, but it’s a big problem that Charlie is genuinely unlikable. Impatient, defensive and rude, he’s thoroughly deficient in redeeming human qualities. Max is forced to tolerate him, but not for a moment is it credible that his comely former girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly of Lost fame) would still hang around her late dad’s old Dallas gym, which she allows Charlie to use as a robot workshop, and welcome such a loser back into her life. Working hard to deliver the accent and externals of an American “street” character, Jackman doesn’t provide Charlie with a glimmer of heart until the very end. It’s easy to imagine, say, Mel Gibson of 15 years ago giving such a role just the right balance between jerk and hidden softie, but Jackman’s Charlie comes off as almost entirely abrasive, someone you’d go out of your way to avoid.
Taking up the slack to an extent is young Goyo, recently seen in Thor, who is natural and unaffected in front of the camera and instantly winning.
Despite the preprogrammed feel of John Gatins‘ script (Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven get story credit, despite the foundation provided by Matheson’s original), director Shawn Levy, in a change of pace from his usual comedies, makes sure the old Rocky underdog charge sets when the climactic bout gets under way. With the slim Atom looking like he has as much of a chance against Zeus as Pee-wee Herman would against the Rock, it’s hard not to engage with the momentum as it swings wildly from one extreme to the other. Charlie, enacting outside the ropes the moves he wants Atom to make, summons all of his boxing knowledge to achieve something through this mechanical proxy that he never quite pulled off in the ring. The ending has the right feel of resolution, but it’s still a question how much of a rooting interest audiences will take in robots trying to send one another to the junkyard.
Loaded with enough product placement to make Jerry Lewis proud, Real Steel is technically seamless.
Opens: Oct. 7 (Disney)
Production: Touchstone, DreamWorks, 21 Laps, Montford/Murphy Prods.
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand, Hope Davis, James Rebhorn, Karl Yune, Olga Fonda
Director: Shawn Levy
Screenwriters: John Gatins, story by Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven, based in part on the short story “Steel” by Richard Matheson
Producers: Don Murphy, Susan Montford, Shawn Levy
Executive producers: Jack Rapke, Robert Zemeckis, Steve Starkey, Steven Spielberg, Mary McLaglen, Josh McLaglen
Director of photography: Mauro Fiore
Production designer: Tom Meyer
Costume designer: Marlene Stewart
Editor: Dean Zimmerman
Music: Danny Elfman
PG-13 rating, 127 minutes
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