By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
What hath Transformers wrought?
Real Steel, for one, a robotic action thriller which seems to exist thanks to the three-movie franchise celebrating the mystifying-to-many-of-us phenomenon of youngsters actually caring about which of two robots is better at fisticuffs and therefore likely to win in a fight — even in a fight to the “death,” whatever that means.
Oh, well. To each his own robotic gladiator.
Hugh Jackman stars as Charlie Kenton, an ex-boxer in the American heartland in the year 2020, when boxing has gone high-tech and remote-controlled, and battling eight-feet-tall, two-thousand-pound humanoid robots (who can take a beating and keep on ticking) have replaced flesh-and-blood boxers in the ring with their popular metal-on-metal violence.
Charlie now makes his modest living traveling across the country as a small-time boxing promoter, frequenting the underground bot-boxing circuit, barely scraping by and staying one step ahead of creditors, some of whom are very disreputable and dangerous.
When Charlie’s ex-girlfriend dies unexpectedly, his estranged 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), a boxing robot enthusiast who resents his deadbeat dad’s paternal absenteeism, shows up on his doorstep.
Reluctantly, Charlie takes him in, but only after he makes a deal with the boy’s aunt and uncle, who agree to give Charlie money he desperately needs in exchange for Max coming to live with them permanently after spending a few months in his father’s care.
Together, Max and Charlie come upon a discarded sparring robot in a scrapyard, rebuild him with spare parts, then name him Atom and train him to become a championship contender on the boxing circuit.
Atom is the catalyst that sparks a father-son bond that grows by the day, along with the attachment both Charlie and Max feel for Bailey, played by Evangeline Lilly, the daughter of Charlie’s ex-trainer and his erstwhile girlfriend, and the closest thing Max has had of late to a mother figure.
The screenplay by John Gatins is based on Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven’s story, which is itself based on the Richard Matheson short story, “Steel,” which previously served as the basis for an early “Twilight Zone” TV episode starring Lee Marvin.
Director Shawn Levy (Date Night, the two Night at the Museum flicks, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Pink Panther) takes a vacation from comedy — his comfort zone but not necessarily ours — and attempts to blend action and sentiment in a PG-13 rated package that means to touch as well as excite his predominantly youthful audience.
But, as usual, the universe Levy presents never evokes the real world, futuristic or not. It’s a halfhearted rendering of the future — an expansion of the “Flesh Fair” sequence in executive producer Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence — that never gives us a sense of how people actually live their lives when they’re not attending boxing matches.
Consequently, the sense of wonder and the willingness to suspend disbelief that ought to be engaged are minimal at best.
The robo-boxing bouts, rendered in motion-capture animation, are slickly, seamlessly mounted. So being able to differentiate between animatronics and CGI is not as easy as it might seem: you’ll have it do it with something other than your eyes.
But that doesn’t mean the narrative has pulled you very far into the ring.
Levy’s movie is ultimately a father-son redemption drama. But for a movie that isn’t an action drama about robots hitting each other, there sure is a lot of footage of robots hitting each other.
Jackson is his charismatic self, even if he does overplay the disdainful rogue element a bit. But Goyo is a real find — natural, poignant, and technically assured.
By the climax, this robo-Rocky has exceeded the accomplishment of its Transformers predecessors. But not by much.
So, like them, it will please young viewers a lot more than it will those of them (that is, us) whose youth has long since disappeared in the rear-view mirror.
Oh, well. So what else is new?
That’s why we’ll box 2 stars out of 4 for the futuristic family film, Real Steel: plenty of steel, but not enough real.