by HELEN GEIB
To start with, because there seems to be some marketing-driven confusion:* Real Steel is a family film. Go ahead and take the kids. They’ll like it, and it’s a nice movie at heart.
The concept is really pretty clever. How do you make a kid-friendly boxing movie? By making the boxers robots! That way they can beat each other to a pulp- or in this case, spare parts- and it’s still all good clean fun. The washed-up fighter looking for a comeback can be the robot fighter’s owner-(ringside) operator and his 11-year-old kid can fill the role of the prodigy bound for glory. Start them off dramatically estranged and you’re good to go.
The story is set just far enough in the future for giant fighting robots to be technically and commercially plausible. Conveniently for the props, costumes, and product placement departments, that day is not very far off. The robots themselves are super-sized versions of extra-cool toy robots. Shawn Levy previously directed Night at the Museum and its sequel, and as in those films the CG characters are seamlessly integrated into the visuals. The visuals overall are unexpectedly appealing, thanks to warm lighting and some nice wide angle shots of fields, rooftops, and indoor and outdoor arenas.
Strengthening the Night at the Museum comparison, both films put father (40ish) and son (10ish) bonding front and center; however, the resemblance is strictly superficial. The earlier movie started from the non-serious situation of dad being an impractical dreamer who wanted to up his cool factor. Real Steel starts from profound estrangement stemming from the father’s eager renunciation of his parental rights at the time of his son’s birth. Their reunion is precipitated by the mother’s death and the prospect of money to be made from the boy’s wealthy maternal relations.
In other words, dad is a miserable human being whose character arc is to finally become a man whom a woman and child can rely on, or in boxing movie terms, one who works hard to win the fight instead of expecting life to hand him an easy victory. This being a Hollywood family film, the hard edges and harder feelings inherent in this storyline are softened and smoothed considerably, but enough comes through to give the emotional finale some real punch.
A family film with this premise could not possibly work unless we in the audience, like the boy and the love interest, find the hero lovable and redeemable in spite of our better judgment. Accordingly, it’s a very good thing Hugh Jackman is the star. His broad, unsubtle, charm-to-spare performance is exactly what’s called for. Cute child actor Dakota Goyo ably plays the cute-but-spunky son who just wants a dad to love.
The film’s major failing is all too familiar: it’s too long. The main story is stretched too far and the robot fighting turns repetitive. An unpleasant, extraneous subplot of a mustache-twirling villain could and should have been left on the cutting room floor.
2 1/2 stars
* “A gritty, white-knuckle, action ride”? I don’t think so.