Review in a Hurry: In the near future, remote-controlled machines have replaced human boxers, and Hugh Jackman is gonna rock ‘em sock ‘em! This tale of a father and his way estranged son sports bold visuals and crazy loud sound FX, but the metal-on-metal violence is mostly kid-friendly.
By the main event, we were totally rooting for the Iron Giant, er, Atom, the broken down ‘bot that tough beyond-his-years son Max (Dakota Goyo) found in a junkyard. And it’s Goyo who’s the real knockout, giving a performance worth cheering for.
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The Bigger Picture: After a recent bout has left his 8-foot robot in pieces—and a mountain of debt from bookies—former boxer Charlie Kenton (Jackman) is begrudgingly reunited with his long-abandoned son, Max. Charlie will keep the kid for the summer but only for a price…so he can purchase more robots. But Max ends up finding an abandoned sparring bot and with help from dad and gym owner Bailey (Lost‘s Evangeline Lilly) hopes to make “Atom” a champion in the Real Steel World Robot Boxing arena.
Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) makes movies for the rare and tricky “all ages” audience. He knows how to appeal to the over-caffeinated 12 year old in all of us. There’s even a scene where Max ends up dancing with Atom after he guzzles too many Dr Peppers. That’s what Levy does best, getting us all hopped up, wanting to throw Street Fighter-like upper cuts.
The fight scenes are a mix of CGI and practical real world robot props. Executive producer Steven Spielberg wanted to give the actors something tangible to work with to maintain the energy on set. Which totally pays off as all the matches have a great bone-crunching feel. And as a rarity for computer effects, the bots all seem to have weight, making every torn off limb and crumpled chest plate all the more convincing.
Did the story have to be so by the numbers though? Charlie’s a money-grubbing jerk who becomes a better fighter after he becomes a better father because that’s how these stories play out. Casting Jackman in the role is a big plus, but even Wolverine can’t deliver every line convincingly.
The real find is 12-year-old Dakota Goyo. He has shades of young Ricky Schroeder from The Champ with his tussled blonde hair and in your face verbal sparring matches with Jackman.
Real Steel works so well and the concept is so obvious—kid out there hasn’t wanted their own robot? that it’s surprising Hollywood hasn’t made Robo Rocky before.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Anyone who was hoping this would be an edgier, more anime-like no holds barred affair should look somewhere else. A bot named Noisy Boy does look a lot like a samurai, but he’s doesn’t go the distance.
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(Originally published Oct 6, 2011, at 6:12 p.m. PT)