In 1963 Richard Matheson faithfully adapted his 1956 short story—about the financially-strapped but pugnacious manager of a robot boxer who stood in for his broken fighter in the ring to earn the money to repair “him”—as an episode of “The Twilight Zone” that starred Lee Marvin. So if you’re looking for the real “Steel,” that’s the place to go.
By contrast this remolding by John Gatins and Shawn Levy, while retaining Matheson’s basic premise, transforms it into a weird cross between “Transformers” and “The Champ,” with a metallic “Rocky” finale added for crowd-pleasing effect. It ends up feeling like a movie version of the old “Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots” toy, padded with the same sort of plot about a boy bonding with his dad that was at the center of Levy’s “Night at the Museum.” That’s not to say that “Real Steel” doesn’t work in a crass, manipulative way. But it does mean that anybody without a bleeding heart will probably be giggling rather than cheering by the final fade-out.
Hugh Jackman stars as robot-boxer manager Charlie Kenton, a hustler whose one-man business is collapsing around him. Deeply in debt to a repulsive Texas promoter named Ricky (Kevin Durand), Charlie gets a surprising second chance when he learns that an old girlfriend of his has died, leaving Max (Dakota Goyo), the eleven-year-old son he’d abandoned, to his none-too-tender care. The kid’s aunt Deborah (Hope Davis) is anxious to adopt him, and her wealthy husband Marvin (James Rebhorn) is willing to make that happen by opening his wallet. So Charlie does a deal, turning custody of Max over to Deborah in return for the cash he needs to buy a robot to replace the one just trashed in Ricky’s rodeo-fight.
There’s a catch, of course—otherwise, there would be no movie. To allow Deborah and Marvin to take a planned European vacation, Kenton agrees to keep the kid for the summer. His intention is to dump the boy with gym owner Bailey (Evangeline Lily), who’s clearly infatuated with him, while he takes his new fighter on the road. But Max has other ideas. A devotee of robot pugilism, he insists on accompanying the dad he detests. And after Charlie’s new robot is almost immediately destroyed because of Kenton’s ineptitude with the control-box, it’s Max who discovers an obsolete model in a junkyard, retrieves it, and insists on restoring it to fighting form. It’s inevitable that this derelict rustbucket, renamed Atom, should, under the joint tutelage of Charlie and Max, quickly become an underdog star and face off against the reigning champ, the seemingly invincible Zeus designed by smoldering Tak Mashido (Karl Yune) and owned by a sultry Russian dame (Olga Fonda). It’s equally inevitable that Charlie and Max will bond over the experience and, win or lose, have a family triumph.
Levy, together with cinematographer Mauro Fiore and editor Dean Zimmerman, has certainly put this part action-movie, part tearjerker hokum together with considerable skill. Jackman responds with a fiercely committed performance, even pouring on the intensity in the ridiculous final act when he must “shadow box” Atom’s moves in the ring after the robot’s voice-control apparatus is smashed. And Goyo is a predictably darling urchin who can put across Max’s bravado while melting hearts with a single tear rolling down his cheek. They make a likable team, making the second-rate banter they share more tolerable than it has any right to be. But their routine is really more vaudeville turn than honest drama.
And nobody else in the cast adds much, with Durand standing out in a pretty pallid bunch only for his extreme scenery-chewing. Danny Elfman’s score, meanwhile, overplays the bombast in the action sequences and the sentiment in the father-son ones.
So “Real Steel” winds up feeling like a middle-grade would-be summer release oddly displaced to October. Those looking for a brainless blockbuster may find it a welcome change from more serious fall fare, but it’s really no better that average of its kind. Like Matheson’s 1963 television version, which was situated in 1974, it’s vaguely futuristic, though the year isn’t specified and things look pretty much contemporary. But however far in the future it’s supposed to be set, the movie is definitely an old-fashioned potboiler made up of spare cinematic parts.