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Review

Robots deliver sucker punch

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October 28, 2011

“Real Steel” takes the time-tested formula of the underdog story perfected by past films like “Rocky” and throws in fighting robots and estranged fathers. After seeing the trailers, it’s hard to have high hopes for a movie like “Real Steel.” I’m more than glad to say my expectations were exceeded. “Real Steel” is a fun movie, with a lot of heart, even if it does meander into some rather heavy-handed territory at times.

The story is simple enough and borders on the generic, but there are enough wrinkles in the narrative to keep things interesting, for the most part. Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a washed up boxer who travels the country trying to rustle up cash by putting barely functional fighting robots into any fight he can. He’s down on his luck, can’t even keep who he owes what straight, and isn’t a very nice guy. He gets word that his ex-girlfriend has died and left a son behind.

It’s no surprise that Charlie gets saddled with his long lost son or that they don’t get along at first. It’s even less of a surprise that they get closer and form a bond as the two rise through the ranks of the robot boxing league. Yes, it’s a fairly rote story, but their arc feels as organic as it possibly can in a feel-good family movie sort of way.

It helps that Charlie’s son Max is played with a great amount of enthusiasm and charm by Dakota Goyo. Max is clever, excitable and has a mouth on him. The best parts of the movie are when Jackman and Goyo get to take shots at, and be snarky with, each other. It’s hard not to crack a smile when they really start going at it.

Let’s be honest, though. People aren’t coming to this movie looking for much more than robots beating the holy hell out of each other and there’s plenty of that to go around.

Charlie and Max find an old sparring robot named Atom while scavenging parts in a junkyard and decide to run him in a few fights to make some quick cash. This short-term plan quickly turns into a shot at the title fight in front of thousands, if not millions, of viewers.

Like I said earlier, there’s not much original going on here. It’s “Rocky” with a fresh coat of paint. I think it actually works in service of the story that “Real Steel” is trying to tell. Viewers know what’s coming next, so every little derivation from the predetermined structure feels surprisingly fresh and inventive, even when it isn’t.

The actual robot fights are all superbly choreographed, thanks in large part to someone having the inspired idea of bringing in boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard as a consultant. Every punch feels like it matters, and every bob and weave feels vital to the continued operation of the robots in the ring.

Director Shawn Levy wisely took the opposite approach of the “Transformers” series when filming the action. There are no quick cuts or non-sensical editing. There is a clear narrative to each fight. The fun, retro-futuristic designs of the combatants go a long way in making them each distinctive, avoiding another problem of the “Transformers” series where each action sequence is just a mess of flashes of gray metal where you can barely tell who you’re supposed to be rooting for or who’s got the upper hand.

Atom is imbued with enough personality that you actually want to see him succeed, part E.T. with his wideeyes and simple mannerisms and part Little Mac from the “Punch Out!” games with his opponents towering over him. Atom has the ability to perfectly mirror a human, so viewers get to see him learning boxing moves from Charlie and dance moves from Max. And yes, the robot dances. It’s sort of his thing. Before you ask, he does do the robot. Quite a few variations of it, actually.

“Real Steel” is a fun watch, but things do get a bit rushed in the third act as our protagonists catapult themselves towards the title fight. Evangaline Lily’s Bailey functions as nothing more than the studio required love interest and her story gets resolved all too quickly as the final scenes start coming.

Speaking of resolutions, some of the main plot points kind of get shuffled away once the metallic fists really start flying. I usually don’t have a problem with open ended stories, but it’s a bit odd when the rest of the story of “Real Steel” is so straightforward. I’d be remiss not to mention that it takes the movie quite a while to actually find its plot. There’s a whole mess of set up to get out of the way before Charlie and Max actually find Atom and start on their quest to take down the current champion.

It’s surprising how much fun “Real Steel” turned out to be when it should have been nothing more than “Rock-em-Sock-em Robots: The Movie.” Jackman’s charisma and Goyo’s enthusiasm really helped sell the reality of metallic titans battling it out for a title belt. Sadly, the emotional stakes get a bit blurred as the action heats up, making the ending feel a bit hollow.

“Real Steel” is not a perfect film by any means, but it’s a bright spot in a particularly dull time for movies. It sports great choreography and an energetic cast and will make you want to dig back in your movie collection and re-watch flicks like “Rocky” and “Raging Bull.”

Chris Rohling is a journalism major with a passion for storytelling in almost every medium.