There are two types of people in this world: those who love ROCKY III, and those who won't allow themselves to love ROCKY III. Shawn Levy's REAL STEEL is for the unrepentant philistines in the former category. It's an Amblin-esque amalgam of every sports movie cliche known to man, all fused together for maximum uplift. This movie wants you to feel sensational; it wants to drown out the fury and sorrow of the outside world for two hours with robot-smashing spectacle and father-son bonding. It is mercilessly manipulative, corny as hell and rigorously upbeat. It works because it embraces 1980s-style garishness as a virtue. This is emphatic, well-crafted hokum. It is ROCKY III.
And I fucking love ROCKY III.
Actually, it's a lot of other movies, too: THE CHAMP, PAPER MOON, OVER THE TOP, THE IRON GIANT and ROCKY IV. But it never feels cynically packaged - which is a shock coming from Levy, director of the loud and exhausting NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM movies. It's affectionate theft: close to homage, but not quite that fancy. REAL STEEL isn't commenting on genre; it is unabashedly of its critically-maligned genre. It is also, on the fringes, a quasi-plausible work of science fiction that posits a believable future in which humans - presumably jacked up on all manner of performance enhancers - can no longer safely participate in violent sports. In this regard, the film has a little in common with its source material: Richard Matheson's short story, "Steel" (which was turned into a classic 1963 TWILIGHT ZONE episode starring Lee Marvin). Just don't expect a conclusion anywhere in the dour neighborhood of Matheson's tale; a man stepping into the ring with one of REAL STEEL's eight-foot-tall bruisers would be nothing more than a swiftly successful suicide attempt.
What we get instead is a future world in which mayhem-hungry sports fans gather in arenas, warehouses or abandoned zoos to watch (and gamble on) sanctioned and unsanctioned robot boxing. When we meet ex-fighter Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), he's toiling in the lowest possible level of the sport - pitting scrap-heap 'bots against flesh-and-blood rodeo bulls. It's a brutal, horrendously inhumane concept, but Jackman's got his star wattage dialed up to blinding intensity, so it's easy to overlook his Vick-ish activities. Later, Charlie learns that an ex-girlfriend has died, leaving behind Max (Dakota Goyo), the son he never wanted. But when Charlie realizes that Max's aunt (Hope Davis) has married into wealth, he feigns interest and makes a side deal with the husband (James Rebhorn) for $100,000 to take ten-year-old Max off their hands while the couple vacations for a few months.
Levy and screenwriter John Gatins (Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven receive "story" credits) have written Max as precocious and kinda pissy; he knows Charlie wants nothing to do with him, but as long as he's stuck with him, he wants in on the fight game. The bickering interplay between the two is lively enough as they attempt to make a killing in the underground division with "Noisy Boy", a top-tier 'bot Charlie purchased with the up-front money he scored from Rebhorn. But their hopes are dashed when Charlie goes all-or-nothing against a more experienced owner. All seems lost until Max, while scouring a junkyard for replacement parts with Charlie, literally stumbles upon Atom. Max forms an instant attachment to the machine, which, like all great underdog fighters, is notable for his/its ability to take a licking without going down for the count. Atom's just a lifeless machine, but Max sees something more in the robots' bright blue eyes. And his faith in the robot is rewarded with an improbable climb out of the underground and into the legitimate, big-time realm of World Robot Boxing. Once Charlie begins to believe in Atom's potential, it becomes plenty obvious that the dent-riddled 'bot is the palooka's last shot at redemption as an owner, a fighter and a father.
That any of this works beyond minute one is a testament to Jackman's ferociously charismatic take on an overly familiar archetype. This is the certainly best he's been since the 2006 combo of THE PRESTIGE and THE FOUNTAIN, and possibly the most switched on he's been since the first X-MEN. Where has this guy been, and why isn't he one of the biggest stars on the planet? Jackman also generates palpable chemistry with Evangeline Lilly, who, as the fiery daughter of Charlie's former trainer, acquits herself nicely in what could've easily been a nothing role.
But Levy, a director who's taken his lumps from the critics over the years (to put it mildly), deserves an equal amount of credit for delivering a film that is confidently staged, briskly paced and, with regard to the seamless integration of top-notch CG with Legacy Effects' amazingly functional robots, visually plausible. I kept waiting for REAL STEEL to collapse into utter inanity like the MUSEUM movies and DATE NIGHT, but Levy maintains a consistent tone throughout. He trusts the material, and generally allows the key emotional moments to develop in rhythm. There are a few scenes I could've done without (in particular, Max teaching Atom to dance), but when you're emulating the '80s crowd-pleaser template, there's gonna be excess.
Having grown up in the time of Amblin treacle and ROCKY sequels, I'm okay with a movie working me over so long as it knows the basic combinations. With REAL STEEL, Levy backs you in a corner early and pours it on until you've no choice but to throw in the towel.