A movie featuring a prestigious cast including Hugh Jackman, Hope Davis and Anthony Mackie should be better than Shawn Levy’s silver screen version of the Rock Em Sock Em Robots. In the sci-fi Real Steel, these robots engage in high-tech boxing matches for their human controllers, one of whom is Charlie Kenton (Jackman), a bankrupt ex-boxer and small-time promoter with aspirations for glory and nothing to show for it. When he discovers he has an estranged 11-year old son, Max (Toronto-area native Dakota Goyo in his debut), Kenton leverages both money and temporary custody of his new-found son to build and train a championship robot. Big boxing robots and bigger, campier set pieces ensue.
I’ll give the film credit for some imagination, capably used to visualize those boxing arenas, both underground and legitimate, as well as the robots that come in every size, luster and ethnicity. Yes, ethnic robots. While the movie is set in 2020, the settings are quite unfuturistic except for the fancier gadgets. Nonetheless, I liked how the film depicts the future. The details are admirable and is sure to bring out the inner techy within the audience. For example, there’s a junkyard with robot parts and even those of a space shuttle, symbolic of our obsession with the gargantuan and the disposable .
Jackman’s approach to his downtrodden character, lacks that glint of worn-down pessimism that he needs to be truly compelling. His accent work is also imperfect but he starts picking up steam later with naturalistic tics as well as developing rapports with other characters. Evangeline Lilly, who plays Charlie’s love interest, is pretty much a more sexually desirable version of Max’s aunt, a harridan who nags Charlie but that’s also rooted in the unrealized potential that she sees within him. She doesn’t seem to know how to connect her emotions from one scene into another but she’s believable as the woman who chugs beers in a sports bar.
The most polarizing performance is Goyo’s, who reminds me of Roger the alien’s abusive child-boyfriend in that one episode in “American Dad.” Despite his breakable exterior and cringe-inducing hip-hop numbers, he embodies someone who can tell a big, hulking adult like Charlie what to do.
The actors’ inconsistencies coincides with the spotty script. Sometimes an emotional scene that could have used a musical cue would have none instead and when Danny Elfman’s score is used, it simply feels manipulative. There is also a pattern at work here in which a decent scene is followed with a clunky montage. And the ending, although realistic, doesn’t resolve the film’s main conflict.