Here's the thing about Hugh Jackman. (Well, there are several things, but I'm trying to focus, here.) I'm still waiting for him to get a movie role as charming, exuberant, and versatile as he is himself, as an interview subject (on Inside the Actor's Studio, for instance) and as an awards show host. In the meantime, we get Real Steel, a workmanlike saga of tarnished dreams and redemption from director Shawn Levy. It's by-the-numbers in every possible way, plot-wise, but it coasts along on the considerable appeal of Jackman, playing both tough and tender as Charlie Kenton, a broken-down fight promoter who gets one last chance to turn his life around.
The story is set in the very near future when fighting robots have replaced humans in the boxing ring. Charlie was a contender once, until the bots took over; now he lives a gypsy life on the road, trucking around an old robot called Ambush on the county fair circuit while trying to stay one step ahead of his numerous creditors. (In the film's ugliest scene, Ambush fights a live rodeo bull at a cheesy fair. Art Boy, my charming moviegoing companion, suggested the bot should have been fighting a mechanical bull, which would have been a much more clever idea, and less icky to watch.)
Anyway, just when Charlie hits bottom, with no bot, no cash, and no prospects, he gets word that a former girlfriend has died in an accident—leaving behind their 11-year-old son, whom Charlie has never known. Intending to sell his custody rights to the boy's wealthy aunt, Charlie instead gains temporary guardianship of young Max (Dakota Goyo) for the summer. Their relationship is adversarial in every way until Max, a videogame junkie, gets a load of his first life-sized fighting bot.
When another of Charlie's fighters is pummeled to scrap metal in the ring, and they raid a recycling center (ie: junkyard) for spare parts, Max discovers Atom under a pile of debris. A small, early-model "sparring bot," Atom is made to take a lot of punishment. His vintage circuitry is out of date, and his control box is funky, but there's something soulful about him, and as Charlie and Max start refurbishing their little underdog and winning bouts with him, father and son, of course, begin to bond as well. Thus, Charlie begins to reclaim himself, and salvage his relationship with Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), the plucky daughter of his former trainer who still run's her father's crumbling old gym.
Every crisis, every bad guy, and every triumph plays out exactly as you expect, but I still found the movie almost ridiculously entertaining. I liked the just-a-few-weeks-from-now milieu: the bots themselves are well articulated and distinctive, and all the tech toys are a little more streamlined, sleek and glowing, but clothing and vehicles & weathered old buildings in the low-rent districts still pretty much look the same. (A nice touch is all the green-power windmills in the distant landscape.)
I especially liked all the different levels of Purgatory suggested by the various fighting arenas: the bleak, tawdry fair, the renegade "zoo," where bikers, punks & lowlifes build their own DIY junker bots to fight for peanuts, the sleazy "Crash Palace," where has-been pro bots go for their melancholy last hurrah (with its great, industrial Metropolis-like posters out front), and the way more upscale first pro League Fight. And at last, the Valhalla (maybe I should say Olympus) of the superdome where Atom fights champion mega-bot Zeus.
Jackman is fun to watch. (Although for his Charlie, "broken-down" is meant to be taken spiritually, not literally; Bailey's misty rhapsody on how, in his fighting prime, Charlie was "lean" and "beautiful," would have more impact if Jackman wasn't standing right there in such ferociously good shape.) And the CGI is well-integrated into the visuals; it always looks like the human and robot characters are side-by-side in the same spatial plane.
What it all boils down to is a tale about a little bot with heart managed by a fighter vs big, hulking, hi-tech muscle machines controlled by geeks with joysticks. In Real Steel's universe, heart wins out. Who could argue with that?