By Mike Smith
It started back before the Super Bowl. You can’t have been in America for the past eight months and not been bombarded for commercials touting what I began to refer to as “that Rock’em – Sock’em Robot movie.” With all due apologies to the Mattel toy company, I didn’t think a movie about boxing robots would be enjoyable. Boy was I wrong.
It’s the future. Actually, the near future, which looks a lot like today. But there is one thing missing. Due to the continuing blood lust of the sports’ fans, boxing is no longer done by men. They have been replaced by giant mechanical robots, who battle non stop until one delivers the “decapa-cino) to the other one, causing the losers head to roll (or fly out into the crowd). We meet former boxer now robot wielder Charlie Kenton (Jackman) as he prepares his “fighter,” Ambush, for a match against a 2000 pound bull at the county fair. Sadly, Ambush does indeed get the horns and Charlie finds himself without a fighter and deep in debt. As if things can’t get any worse, he discovers that a long lost love of his has died and that someone needs to take care of her/their eleven year old son, Max (Goyo). Not wanting to be burdened with a son he’s never seen before, Charlie hopes to sign the boy over to the state. However, when he discovers the boys’ wealthy aunt and uncle want to adopt Max he arranges a money deal, agreeing to keep the boy for a couple of months while the new mom and dad see Italy. Smart beyond his years (seriously, this kid is like a computer and mechanical genius) and a huge fan of WRB (World Robot Boxing), Max heads off with Charlie for what he will surely remember as the summer of his life.
Featuring sharp performances from its cast (both human and metal) and some outstanding special effects, “Real Steel” is best described as “Rocky” meets “The Iron Giant.”” And that is a complement. Both “Rocky” and “The Iron Giant” had plenty of heart, and “Real Steel” shares that trait with them. When a junkyard mishap allows Max to discover an old, discarded ‘bot named Atom, the movie becomes so much more than an action film. The film not only plays on the burgeoning relationship between Charlie and Max, it also focuses on the one between Max and Atom. Atom contains a program that allows him to shadow others movements, and a scene where Max dances with excitement while Atom mimics him is one of the film’s highlights. This could possibly be the first time you’ll ever see “a” robot do “the” robot. Jackman is his usual winning self, playing a man conflicted. Goyo, who was on screen earlier this year as the young Thor in “Thor,” gives a breakout performance along the lines of Rick “don’t call me Ricky” Schroder in “The Champ.” If his relationship with both Charlie and Atom aren’t believable, the film is nothing more than a loud two hour toy commercial.
The film does have a few flaws. It seems to have borrowed its last 45 minutes from “Rocky 4,” including a nearly freakish fighting machine and its Russian-accented lady mouthpiece. I was shocked to see that the actress playing the Russian (Olga Fonda – real last name Tchakova) actually WAS Russian, so poor was her accent. How bad was it? She made Bridgette Nielsen, Drago’s wife in “Rocky 4,” sound like Rasputin! Perhaps she was channeling Natasha from “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” The final WRB battle is exciting to watch and surprisingly emotional. Director Levy, who did the “Night at the Museum” films, stages the action well, managing to make the characters people to care about.