In a near future, human boxing has been outlawed, replaced by fast-paced, high-tech robot boxing. Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a washed-up fighter who now promotes similarly washed-up robot fighters. He travels to rural fairs and shady underground fights trying to scrape together enough cash to keep his steel warriors slugging. He rarely has enough left over to pay rent to his former girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), who owns the gym where he trained as a fighter, and where he now lives.
After the death of a different ex-girlfriend, Charlie finds himself reunited with his estranged son, Max (Dakota Goyo). He’s hoping to make a little cash and keep the kid out of trouble for a summer, but discovers his son is a bit of a robot fighting prodigy. After Max finds an old-model sparring bot in a scrap yard, Charlie, on his last financial legs, goes along with the boy’s pleading to get the bot a fight. Named Atom, the sparring bot can take a lot of damage but doesn’t have a lot of offensive moves. Fortunately, it’s got a rare shadow circuit, allowing it to mimic another’s movements. So Charlie begins teaching his moves to the robot, which leads to surprising success.
Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum” franchise and “Date Night”) directs the film, which marries “Rocky”-style inspiration with “Transformers”-style robots. The robots, however, aren’t just digital marvels — in most occasions, the robots were physically built objects, which adds to the film’s heft.
While the trailers to the film remind many of the Mattel toy line “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots,” the toy-maker has nothing to do with the film. The premise instead comes from a 1956 Richard Matheson story, “Steel,” which was adapted into a “Twilight Zone” episode in 1963. The film credits say it’s “partially based” on “Steel,” because the storyline goes far afield from the plot of “Steel.” But the heart of the idea is there — an aging fighter who refuses to stop punching even when the world wants to pass him by.
The father-son dynamic is good in “Real Steel,” and once Kenton decides to stop doing the most immature thing possible at every moment, he proves he still has a good head for a fight on his shoulders.
It’s predictable, but better than it has to be, and “Real Steel” should appeal to boys and their fathers looking for a film with action and heart.
— Matthew Price
From Friday’s The Oklahoman
PG-13/ 2:07/ 2½ stars
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo, Kevin Durand, Anthony Mackie.
(For some violence, intense action and brief language.)