Real Steel is Transformers meets The Champ, a cute, occasionally sentimental father-son bonding picture with boxing Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots as its backdrop.
In the post-BattleBots near future, boxing has faded away. What gets the bloodlust up in a crowd — at county fairs, in underground fight clubs or on TV — is to see two boxing robots tear each other to pieces in the ring.
Charlie (Hugh Jackman) is an ex-fighter who travels the back roads, putting his late-model robot into fights with bulls, other robots, all comers. And because the robot has seen better days and Charlie is a born loser, he's always slipping out of town without paying off his bets. And he's always slipping back into the run-down boxing gym/robot parts shop, run by his ex-girlfriend (Evangeline Lilly), to start over.
"You've been working with those robots so long you've become one," she says.
She's being prophetic. Charlie is so hard up for cash that when he learns that he has a son from a long-ago relationship and that the boy's mother has died, he sells custody of the kid to the woman's sister (Hope Davis). Or, more precisely, to her husband (James Rebhorn). But the deal is that Charlie keeps the kid for the summer so the rich folks can go on their European vacation in peace.
With that cash and that fresh-mouthed kid, Charlie buys back into the game and heads back on the road. The kid finds his own junked sparring 'bot. And as their mechanical alter egos fight in abandoned warehouses and meet colorful characters, such as the promoter Finn (Anthony Mackie, classing up the joint), maybe their luck will change.
Real Steel bears little resemblance to Steel, the story by Richard Matheson on which it's based (not the 1979 film Steel that starred Lee Majors and was filmed in Lexington), or the classic Twilight Zone episode that hewed close to that story. That was about a broken-down, desperate ex-boxer who dresses up like his busted robot and gets into the ring to battle a machine just to save his skin, a real man showing his mettle, as it were. If they'd married that story to The Champ, they would have had a real weeper. ("No, Pa, don't get in the ring with that machine! He'll kill ya!")
What director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) went for instead was a toy tie-in, an overlong movie that takes on some of the grimy veneer and colorful characters of a "boxing picture," sanitizing it for children.
Jackman gamely does his best. Levy keeps the kid, played by Dakota Goyo, just shy of insufferable and just this side of kid-appropriate in his behavior and language. And the fights, better animated than those in the far sillier Transformers movies, have a visceral feel to them. You could totally see boxing going this BattleBots route and people signing up for, and betting on the outcome of, pay-per-view bouts that pit unfeeling, speechless machines against each other in fights to the death. It might be cheaper, though, to buy a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots set.