Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a two-bit trainer traveling the state fair circuit in a not-too-distant future. His line is robot fighting, a sport that has absorbed the audience for boxing, MMA, and, apparently, demolition derby. After a tough match leaves Charlie 'bot-less, he gets news that his ex-girlfriend, with whom he had a son 11 years ago, has died. Charlie's relationship with the boy is summarized in the unconcerned, offhand way that he asks, "Is he dead, too?" when he gets the news.
Feckless Charlie gets stuck tending son Max (Dakota Goyo) until the boy's rich relatives are ready to pick him up. Touchy though things are between father and son, Max is a quick study and helps to refurbish a salvaged old sparring robot into a legitimate contender. This being a Steven Spielberg-produced picture, the robot, named Atom, also appears for a time as a substitute father, looking on his charge with benignly glowing eyes. This is the merest shortcut to establishing empathy for the pile of metal, touching none of the sublime "I know now why you cry . . ." saccharinity of Terminator 2.
Real Steel, a movie whose themes are writ 20 stories high, develops as an intergenerational dialogue, with ex-prizefighter Charlie's old-school know-how meeting Max's caffeinated energy and video-gaming savvy, together making for a winning managerial combination: Under their training, Atom becomes more a fluid boxer than a wrecking machine. This reconciliation of styles echoes the movie's attempted conversation between classical character-based storytelling and new spectacular effects filmmaking. In a tale predicated on the surpassing of man by machine, Real Steel doesn't engage in the same — it's what a publicist might describe as an "effects movie with heart." Robot Jox jokes aside, gladiatorial animatronics are of secondary concern here. Based very loosely on a short story by I Am Legend author Richard Matheson, Real Steel in fact comes closer to road-bonding movies featuring children and hesitant papas: Paper Moon or Over the Top, say.
This is not necessarily cause for celebration. On the multiplex stage, the subservience of action to character development has become a rare enough arrangement of priorities to cause a stir whenever it occurs, but the development of simplistic characters along overfamiliar lines isn't intrinsically preferable to pure sensation or the free run of imagination — and there is little of either here. Real Steel's conception of the underground fight circuit through which Charlie and Max begin their rise is pilfered from dated video game stages: Eminem blaring on a factory floor that looks like Zangief's domain in Street Fighter II; an abandoned zoo full of jeering Mohican squatters. (The open casting at tattoo conventions must've been intense.)
When convenient, Real Steel plays with the tropes of blue-collar grit, but it can't hide its baby-smooth hands. Jackman's fit, spry gait belies his backstory of attrition and disappointment, his archetypal deadbeat dad bogus right from the start — waking up to fumble with two prop department beer bottles. (Matheson's story was previously adapted for The Twilight Zone, with Lee Marvin as the trainer — here in brief, an example of the decline in the performance of tarnished living.) Evangeline Lilly, the gearhead daughter of Charlie's mentor and his arbitrary love interest, is exfoliated of any trace of motor oil or hard luck, while young Dakota Goyo is a sloe-eyed flouncy-tressed blonde with an elfin nose and Bobby Driscoll quality. He's one of those child actors who it's impossible to imagine as a boy with any personal history other than "child actor"; asked to play scrappy and self-sufficient, he seems, finally, like a suburban whelp named "Dakota."
Of course Charlie and Max's hard work leads not only to reconciliation, but to a title shot, where Atom is complemented by a ringside announcer for displaying a fighting style that's "almost human." This is about the highest compliment the mechanistic, spare-parts melodrama of Real Steel deserves.