by Richard von Busack
WHEN YOU HAVE seen something particularly bad, you start to worry about the stars of the film. Think, for instance, how long it's been since Hugh Jackman got a really good role. You can see even his charm and energy starting to flag in Real Steel, an arguably worthy attempt to put some heart into the clobbering-robot genre.
Shawn Levy (the Night at the Museum franchise) fills the screen with slightly futurized Americana. As seen from the opening helicopter shot, Jackman's Charlie Kenton is driving to a carnival at twilight. He's the kind of barnstorming robot-boxing proprietor who wakes up with the Budweiser bottles rolling around next to his bunk.
He plans to match his battered 'bot against what was billed as a steer—and turns out to be an angry bull. Happily, for those who prefer not to see animals mistreated, the bull takes one good punch and then tears the robot apart with his horns.
Now broke, 'botless and owing a vicious gambler (Kevin Durand) some serious money, Charlie gets some other news; the 11-year-old son he knew little and cared less about, Max (Dakota Goyo), has just lost his mother. Charlie takes a $75,000 bribe in exchange for custody rights from his ex's in-laws. Some of the money will pay for a space at the local robot gym. He is welcome to stay there because the owner, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), is sweet on him.
Charlie and his son are prowling the wrecker's yard. The rain unearths an old-time robot, with blue LED eyes and a face that looks like a scarred fencing mask. Max's insistence that the Atom the Robot has skills leads the three from Palookaville rings in places called "The Crash Palace" and "The Zoo" right up to the high-market arenas.
Real Steel really steals a primal boxing-movie plot (King Vidor's 1931 The Champ). Nominally but scarcely based on a Richard Matheson story, once adapted on The Twilight Zone, the movie aims for lyrical moments; there's even a reel or so without robots. Peaceful minutes include a training session where Max seems to instructing his pet 'bot in what looks like tai chi.
But someone worried about the movie going sweet: Levy also tries to amp up even the macho side of giant metal machines punching each other, with announcers shouting, "Get back in your corner, bitch, and take your whipping like a man."
I expect that this kind of talk is supposed to make the battle 'bots warmer, in contrast with the vileness of humans. But you also wonder who, exactly, Real Steel is for. The bloody-minded little boy and bloody-minded former little boy demographic is pretty large (as per the box office on Transformers). But they want what they want. Are they going to feel they robbed of regularly scheduled wreckage in favor of dad and son bonding?
Jackman looks distempered, as if he were weary of staring with admiration into the space where the robot action is going to be digitized later. Admittedly, he does wake up a little during a kiss with Lilly during Real Steel's 10-minutes-of-girl sequence.
While it's wrong to go after child actors, Goyo is so clearly an actor that a joke sneaks in about it. During an argument with Dad, Goyo commences a Pacino-style "Look at me. Look at me" riff.
Real Steel attempts some kind of resonance with the broken United States. When unearthed, the muddy Atom looks like it's wearing the sand-colored body armor our soldiers don in Iraq. But Levy overloads his movie with craptasticism: with the swelling of Danny Elfman's music (suggested title "The Coronation of God"), with the Russo-Japanese villains and Mohawk wearers snarling in defeat.
Even the robots don't have interesting names. A two-headed 'bot is called "Twin Cities"—that must have taken an all-nighter. And as Matt Groening once put it, it ain't over until the plucky little boy puts his fist in the air and screams, "Yes!"