Battle-bots bust a move
By Michael O'Sullivan
Thursday, Oct 06, 2011
Set in the near future,"Real Steel" is a slightly soggy tale of father-son bonding, crossed with an action-adventure flick about high-tech battle-bots.
Imagine giant Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots that can be operated by remote control or, in the coolest touch of all, simply by aping the operator's body motions. One of them can even bust a dance move.
It's like a Wii game, pro wrestling, "The Iron Giant" and "Transformers" all rolled into one - with just a touch of that Kia commercial with the robots rocking out to music by LMFAO. So who, you might wonder, is this strange hybrid movie's target demographic?
The answer: your 11-year-old son. He and his middle-school cronies will, in all likelihood, love the crunch of CGI metal on metal and the whole video-game aesthetic.
Everyone else? Not so much.
This, despite the presence of human actor Hugh Jackman in the role of Charlie Kenton, a washed-up and itinerant former boxer. When the movie opens, Charlie is eking out a meager living on the rural sideshow circuit, where he enters fighting 'bots in matches against, say, rodeo bulls.
The problem is that Charlie isn't very good at it. In short order, he's got a truck full of broken robot parts and a long list of angry creditors, who include his landlord and former girlfriend, played by Evangeline Lilly.
Making matters worse is the sudden appearance in Charlie's life of Max (Dakota Goyo), Charlie's 11-year-old son.
Max's mother has just died, leaving the boy temporarily in Charlie's custody. Charlie doesn't really want the kid, but he does want the $100,000 that Max's wealthy aunt and uncle (Hope Davis and James Rebhorn) are willing to pay him to babysit Max while they vacation in Italy, before taking official custody of him.
This sets the stage for two things. On the one hand, it's the redemption of Charlie's career, courtesy of Max, a video-game wiz kid who turns out to be far better at the battle-bot biz than his dad. On the other hand, it's a rapprochement of sorts between the estranged father and his son. Both threads center on Max's efforts to restore and train a battered robot that he finds in a junkyard, then cleans up and names Atom. Against all odds, Atom starts winning bouts against far bigger opponents. It seems he's a pretty good dancer, too.
So which do you think is the more interesting story line? The David-and-Goliath tale about a kid and his scrappy, dancing, secondhand robot, or the gooey one about the father getting to know his son?
If you answered "the dancing robot," you must be an 11-year-old kid. Either that, or you have one trapped inside you. Come to think of it, maybe we all do.
I'm still trying to get over the delicious incongruity of hearing Hope Davis shout, during the film's climactic prizefight between Atom and Zeus, the world-champion battle-bot, "Knock that little [expletive]! Bust him open!"
Contains a bit of human-on-human violence, some obscenity and a brief scene of a child in jeopardy.