Aimed at pre-teen boys, this inspirational action drama is set in 2020, when high-tech entertainment consists of eight-foot-tall, 2000-pound robots brutally battling in boxing rings with their owners holding remote controls.
Scheming, bottom-feeding Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), is a former heavyweight boxer-turned-promoter who pieces together low-end bots from scrap metal for small-time, underground fights, working out of an old Dallas gym owned by his former girlfriend, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly from “Lost”). Suddenly saddled with an estranged 11 year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), whose mother recently died, insensitive, impatient Charlie is all-too-willing to sell him for the $100,000 he owes his creditors.
“You’ve been working with those robots so long, you’ve become one,” Max’s aunt Deborah (Hope Davis) observes, before departing for Europe.
But then, one night, while stealing scrap parts from a junkyard, Max tumbles down a precipice and discovers Atom, a battered, discarded, “generation two” sparring bot. Feisty and ferociously adept at bot-boxing electronics, smart-mouthed Max bonds with Atom, who has a special adjustment, called “the shadow mode,” which allows the android to pantomime human movement. Predictably, abrasive, abusive Charlie eventually bonds with them both, as they train Atom for awesome bouts with bots like Ambush, Midas, Noisy Boy, two-headed Twin Cities and autonomous, constantly-evolving Zeus. (Sugar Ray Leonard served as fight consultant.)
Written by John Gatins, based on a story by Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven and Richard Matheson’s short story “Steel”, which was made into a 1963 “Twilight Zone” episode, and directed by Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”), it combines key elements from sci-fi films, like “Transformers,” “E.T.,” “Wall-E,” “A.I.” and “Star Wars,” and underdog sports stories, like “Rocky,” “Cinderella Man” and “The Champ.” Wags have dubbed it “Real Steal,” noting the all-too-obvious Dr. Pepper product placement.
Hugh Jackman oozes surliness, making young Dakota Goyo all the more charming as he assures endearing, blue-eyed Atom: “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me,” never revealing what that bionic secret might be.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Real Steel” scores a family-friendly 6, despite its recycled Wii-redemption.