REAL STEEL follows a traditional, and somewhat ROCKY-esque, path with some ingenious devices that keep the action lively. Set in a near future where boxing has gone robotic, the main thrust of the story is still very human, with a neer-do-well of an ex-boxer having second chances thrust upon him by the son he abandoned 11 years ago. In a very bright piece of casting, Hugh Jackman is the father, Charlie, and it is Jackmans inviolable charisma and likeability that keeps the audience squarely on his side, even when he makes very stupid choices more than once, even when he is callous to those who least deserve it more than once, even when he cant keep track of his sons age, again, also more than once.
Charlie has graduated from boxer, now that the money and the sport has followed robots into the ring, and turned boxing robot owner. Though a talented fighter, he was never quite good enough, and his ownership career follows suit. Broke, in debt to the wrong people, and on the verge of losing the last person on his side, the lovely Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), he sells custody of his son, Max (Dakota Goyo), to the boys uncle for the cash to buy just one more robot and turn his luck around. The catch is he has to take the boy over the summer. Little does he realize the luck is in the form of the boy, a video game fanatic with a penchant for electronics and making decisions for them both that are risky, but not necessarily bad.
As is expected in a story like this, the estranged father and son bond, but it is an refreshingly astringent relationship in which the adult role is up for grabs at any given moment. The rival for the real emotional bond is Atom, the junk-heap boxing robot who is hopelessly out of date, hopelessly small compared to the newer models, and who may or may not have more going on behind his oddly moving LED blue eyes than the whirring of the flywheels in his robot head. Max, having just lost one parent, been all but abandoned by the other, has an emotional stake in Atom that is not entirely mysterious. That he is projecting a self-awareness in the machine is hardly surprising. What is surprising is how very good Goyo is, hewing to a closed-up sorrow of a kid that has the tug of realism to it. The direction is sensitive, catching the timbre of both the highs and the lows of the nascent relationships, and nailing the excitement of the boxing matches where everything is on the line. The only questionable moments coming at the beginning, when a robot takes on a steer. Issues of animal cruelty spring to mind.
None of this would matter much if the robots werent rendered well, the which they are. They are not flashy enough to overwhelm the story, but Atoms opponents are ferociously animated with an excellent simulacrum of human movement. Toss in an impossible to beat world champion, Zeus, and his unpleasant inventor-managers, whose foreign accents and superior attitudes peg them as ripe for a proper taking down, and the flick has something for everyone.
Earnest, but never mawkish, REAL STEEL makes for story that is both action-packed and genuinely moving as it aspires to be, and is, more than a live-action version of a popular 60s robot boxing game.