We open in the backwaters of the unsanctioned robot-boxing circuit, where Hugh Jackman's joystick cornerman, Charlie, has been reduced to pitting his last tin palooka against a rodeo steer. I cherished a fleeting hope that Real Steel would continue in this Hemingwayesque bullfighting vein and become a Robot Death in the Afternoon, but nah. Still, the movie is savvy enough in its run-down county-fair settings to recognize that the flyover-country America of 2027 will look exactly like the flyover-country America of 2011, but with bigger stadiums. Real Steel is refreshingly uncomplicated in other ways, as well: Its matches are cleanly choreographed parry-and-jab bouts—every combatant has a glass jaw—and it is the first android picture I can recall that mercifully ignores ontological questions, even if the protagonist 'bot, Atom, has kindly blue eye-bulbs that recall the Iron Giant.
But since Real Steel is directed by the Other Shawn Levy (the one who isn't an Oregonian critic), it is bound to have severe bugs. The malfunction this time is the arrival of Charlie's son Max, a mouthy moppet played by Dakota Goyo, who bears several regrettable similarities to Jake Lloyd in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The kid's mother has died in circumstances the movie takes pains never to explain (though Real Steel is 20 times funnier if you imagine she was killed by robots), and thus begins a tedious father-son bonding plot. This aspect is far more central to the picture than any of the marketing suggests, and it is only bearable because of Jackman. The grinning Aussie is too obviously a song-and-dance man to persuasively portray Charlie as an irresponsible cad—the early scenes call for a young Jack Nicholson, just as Five Easy Pieces could have been improved by more robots—but by the movie's end, controlling Atom like a lumberjack playing a Wii, Jackman finds a groove where violence becomes a joyful two-step. In a movie without a brain in its head, he goes to the body. PG-13.
63 SEE IT: Real Steel opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Cinetopia, Cornelius, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Cinema 99, City Center, Evergreen, Hilltop, Lloyd Center, Lloyd Mall, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville and Sandy.