By Bryan Menegus, Columnist
A brief introduction to the bumbling world of Real Steel: in the undefined but presumably near future, boxing has been replaced by robot boxing (with the ability to build ten-foot fighting robots seeming to be the only technological advancement man has made), and Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a floundering bottom-feeder on the very lowest rung of this nascent sport. Charlie is also, as we learn from the first scene, deeply in debt to multiple lenders. Furthermore, he shows himself to be an incompetent fighter, a loudmouth, and the absent father of a bastard son whose age he cannot remember. Roughly, his rising debt and the sudden reintroduction of his son Max (Dakota Goyo) after the death of his estranged ex-girlfriend (Max's mother, unnamed) are the catalysts of the film.
Although Goyo possesses the same charms that launched Haley Joel Osment's career, eleven-year-old Max has all the characteristics of a Scrappy Doo: a cloyingly positive little brat who consistently (and loudly) gives his input on all situations, whether solicited or not. So from the get-go, we're handed two characters who are not only thoroughly unlikable, but whose interaction is made stiff by the lack of an back-story you could empathize with. The reason we know to root for these characters has more to do with the amount of time they're on screen rather than any defined goals.
Granted, Max realizes early on that he wants to become a robot boxer, so the goals this father and son duo strives for occur in the ring. But there's a fundamental lack of motivation for this need to fight, aside from the oft-relied on "love of the game". As a non-athlete, maybe I just can't understand. And yes, Charlie wants to win back his son's love and trust, but it's a realization made in a particularly short and emotionally hollow moment about an hour-and-a-half into the film.
So what does this movie get right? Well, the robot fighting. The necessity to cut between the fight itself and the robots' operators reactions doubletimes the pace of editing, which creates a sense of tension absent in the human interactions of the movie. Stylistically, the robot fights are grounded in real boxing, which is pleasant change from Michael Bay's sluggish and piss-poor Transformers movies. However, the script is roughly on par with a student film, Jackman's acting feels utterly phoned-in, and Goyo's screeching is enough to make dogs commit suicide.
There are hints at deeper things in Real Steel, not all of them positive. A throwaway shot of our home team's ‘bot, Atom, staring into a mirror implies some sort of sentience, which might have made a more interesting subplot than Charlie's astronomical debt. Strangely, most of the film's adversaries are of Asian descent, which, contrasted with our occidental heroes, seems like xenophobia ripe for the picking. Thankfully, that subtext is never taken beyond a nudge. Mostly, Real Steel seems to be a celebration of the human element, as Atom perseveres due to Charlie's past experience as an actual boxer and because of his new (and force-fed) relationship with his son—but in a movie that stars cgi robots more than people, it's a hard sell. Real Steel is a redemption story, but orated with a mouth full of glue and marbles.