Max Kenton (Dakota Goyo) and dad Charlie Kenton
(Hugh Jackman) with their robot boxer Noisy Boy
© 2011 DreamWorks

Real Steel

(Reviewed September 30, 2011, by James Dawson)

What a clunker. The best thing that can be said about this loudly clattering lemon is that it’s not in 3D, which would have made the two-hours-plus pummeling even more punishing.

The 1956 short story "Steel" by legendary SF/fantasy writer Richard Matheson gets a shout-out in the movie’s credits, but the John Gatins screenplay of this brain-battering retool has extremely little in common with that grimly downbeat character study. Matheson himself faithfully adapted “Steel” into a 1963 episode of "The Twilight Zone," in which a boxing robot’s financially desperate owner (well played by Lee Marvin) secretly takes his obsolete machine’s place in the ring and is nearly beat to death by an android opponent. Nothing like that happens in the movie.

In "Real Steel," Hugh Jackman substitutes roguish con-man charm for Marvin’s hopeless obsessiveness as Charlie Kenton, the kind of impetuous dumbbell who doesn’t bother familiarizing himself with the controls of a new $50,000 robot before putting the thing in the ring against a champion. He got that money by selling custody of newly motherless Max (Dakota Goyo), the young son Charlie abandoned years ago, to the boy’s aunt and her rich husband. The catch is that Charlie is stuck minding Max until those parents-to-be return from an extended summer vacation. Father and son bickering predictably becomes bonding.

Jackman overacts with such fervor that Charlie never seems the least bit convincing. Goyo is slightly more credible, even if his character is stuck with typical Hollywood-kid sassy dialog and unlikely genius-level smarts. Also, the makers of a certain soft drink definitely get their product-placement money’s worth, considering how much of the stuff Max flagrantly consumes.

Besides the addition of a family angle, the original story’s completely human-looking robots have become Transformers-like oversized action figures here. (Steven Spielberg is an executive producer on both "Real Steel" and the Transformers trilogy.) Charlie also has a new gym-owning and long-pining love interest named Bailey (Evangeline Lilly). The all-new villains of the piece are the supermodel-sexy Farra Lemcova (Olga Fonda) and the inscrutably terse Tak Mashido (Karl Yune), owners of a reigning champion uber-robot named Zeus.

Giving credit where it's due, the battling robots—which are both physical animatronics and CGI motion-capture creations—look state-of-the-art amazing. They can’t talk and are not given distinct individual personalities, although Charlie and Max’s rescued-from-the-dump Atom is unusually attuned to Max’s voice.

This may have led the moviemakers to believe that scenes of robots being beaten to mangled scrap, dismembered and even beheaded in the ring should be considered innocuous "videogame violence" that needn’t concern parents of small children. Wrong. The rock-'em sock-'em action in "Real Steel" is so realistically destructive that kids (and adults) who are not already completely desensitized can't help being disturbed by those kinds of images. Also, you don't have to be a PETA member to be bothered by a supposed-to-be-amusing scene in which a robot is pitted against a flesh-and-blood bull. What was on the undercard, a cockfight?

One of the movie's best-looking scenes features Charlie and Max night scavenging at a rainy junkyard where Max takes a frightening slide toward a pit. Yet even though they are there looking for robot parts, and Max locates a completely intact robot, Charlie storms off without even examining the find. This screenplay obviously is missing a logic board.

Good looking but soulless, this overamped contraption could have used a lot more research and development—and at least a little more humanity.

Back Row Reviews Grade: D+