In the near future, robots have replaced humans in boxing rings. In the here and now, "Real Steel" feels mostly recycled.
"Real Steel" is a robotic boxing story starring, and apparently created by, robots. Aimed at an audience of children and easygoing adults, it follows the conventions of combat movies with machinelike precision. If you could run a program to mathematically scan every boxing screenplay in the history of movies and assemble a script to the exact specifications of the formula, this would be the result. It's 10 percent lovable underdog hokum, 23 percent sentimental family drama and 67 percent rivet-popping punch-ups. The film has all the passion of the IRS tax code, yet in a bland, vanilla-yogurt way it's sort of OK.
The film takes place a decade in the future, when gladiatorial combat sports have become so extreme that only robots can supply the overblown mayhem that audiences desire. Hugh Jackman plays Charlie, a former boxer who has moved on to managing rundown robot fighters. He buys junkers, enters them in low-rent matches, and scrambles to stay a step ahead of his bad debts. We meet him waking up amid a scattering of beer bottles, being razzed by little kids who won't pay $5 for a photo with his latest tin man, and matching the scrapper against a real raging bull at a downscale Texas rodeo.
Preteen boys of all ages will thrill to the sight of a Rock 'em, Sock 'em robot punching a charging bull in the face. And truth be told, the robot fighters (partially working models, partly computer generated imagery) are persuasive. The heavy clump of their footfalls, the play of light on their chassis, the high-speed physics of their clashes all look seamlessly realistic.
Not so convincing is the curveball that saddles Jackman with Max (Dakota Goyo), a young, rebellious son from a long-forgotten liaison. Following his old girlfriend's death, Charlie agrees to sign away his parental rights; the boy's aunt (Hope Davis) and her wealthy husband (James Rebhorn) want to raise him. The deadbeat dad agrees to take temporary custody of the boy while the couple take an extended European vacation. Max, who has no love for his runaway father, makes every minute as annoying as possible, though he shares Charlie's enthusiasm for robot fighters. On a trip to the junkyard the boy discovers Atom, an old model literally at the bottom of the heap. Amid much squabbling, Charlie and Max upgrade the old brawler, whose faceplate sometimes suggests sentient thought. The father/son train their robot Rocky, bonding as he begins an unlikely climb toward a championship bout.
Director Shawn Levy of the "Night at the Museum" movies has a successful track record with the inanimate-objects-coming-alive premise. Here he aims to become the Michael Bay of family entertainment. His feel for robot smashdowns is solid. It's the family drama that requires us to suspend all disbelief.