Hugh Jackman really wants to entertain us, whether he’s shredding evil mutants as Wolverine or channeling his inner showman on Broadway.
But he’s never had to work up a sweat like he does in the new action film ‘Real Steel.’
The Aussie strains every acting muscle in his hulking frame to make this story about a father, his son and their rock ’em, sock ’em robot work.
And, in the end, it’s the audience throwing in the towel. It’s impossible to resist ‘Real Steel,’ even if we feel a bit guilty afterward.
Jackman stars as Charlie, a washed up ex-boxer who barely makes a living managing robot boxers. In the not-so-distant future, human boxers have been replaced by robots who can take far more punishment and boast cool names like Atom and Zeus.
Charlie’s debt woes are shoved aside when he learns his ex-girlfriend has died and he may get custody of their 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo). Charlie doesn’t have a fatherly instinct in his body, so he works out a financial arrangement with the boy’s rich aunt (Hope Davis) for her to adopt the lad.
But first, Charlie will have to watch Max for a few weeks until the aunt returns from a European trip. The father and son reunion is as awkward as you’d imagine.
“You sold me?” the boy asks Charlie when he learns about the money exchange.
“It’s not as bad as it sounds, kid,” Charlies responds. Of course it is, but Jackman’s natural decency will come shining through at some point, no doubt.
Turns out Max loves robot boxing as much as his estranged pa, and the two find common ground while working on a scrap-heap ‘bot who can really take a licking.
Director Shawn Levy (the ‘Night at the Museum’ movies) possesses keen populist instincts, and he knows just how hard to push our emotional buttons. But Levy can’t chase the film’s ‘Rocky’ cliches away, nor can he do much with Max, a child with the personality of a wedding DJ who simply won’t shut up.
Max exists to draw in young viewers, and that’s the best audience for ‘Real Steel’ – teens who don’t mind being manipulated if it means seeing cool robots punch each other into spare parts. Boxing’s rougher edges are smoothed away for family consumption, and even a scene that looks stripped out of a ‘Mad Max’ movie ends up without any bloodshed or suffering.
And don’t fret over any possible social commentary in ‘Real Steel.’ You won’t find a trace of it, or anything else that lets us know the story takes place a few years down the road.
Jackman may muscle the story over the finish line, but he can’t flex away some of the clanking dialogue.
“You’ve been working with these robots so long you’ve become one of them,” Davis’ character tells Charlie.
Goyo gets it the worst, forced to say things like, “I got that,” “Let’s do this” and, of course, “Let’s work.” And here’s hoping the Blu-ray version allows viewers to zap past Max doing synchronized hip-hop dancing with his robot.
‘Real Steel’ squanders some interesting subplots, from the notion that one of the robots may be sentient to a sweet performance by Evangeline Lilly of ‘Lost’ fame as Charlie’s sorta-kinda girlfriend.
‘Real Steel’ doesn’t want to be taken too seriously. It’s a tale of redemption sweetened by robots beating each other until their circuit boards crack. But darn if it doesn’t entertain more than it should. Jackman won’t let you leave the theater without having had a semblance of a good time.