October 5th, 2011 12:01 am AARON MESH | Movie Reviews & Stories

Real Steel

The prizefighter and the robot.

movies.box.realsteel_3748HE WENT THAT-A WAY: Hugh Jackman coaches a robot. - IMAGE: Dreamworks Pictures
Real Steel is fundamentally a bad movie—obnoxious, incoherent and sloppy—resembling nothing so much as some ’90s summer family-film commodity fabricated to sell toys: Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, specifically. Somehow this also makes it seem like a more innocent movie, or at least reminds me of a time when I was more innocent about movies. Most kiddie blockbusters have become cripplingly wised up and knowing. Real Steel knows nothing.

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.

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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