Remember when you were eight and you argued with your friends over who would win a fight, Optimus Prime or Voltron? Imagine if they made a movie out of that, then cast “that guy who played Wolverine” as the story’s human protagonist. That’s “Real Steel” in a nutshell, more or less.
Based loosely on the Richard Matheson story “Steel” (previously and more effectively adapted as a Twilight Zone episode in 1963), “Real Steel” takes place in a near future wherein boxing is no longer done by human beings, but by machines.
Hugh Jackman plays Charlie, a scruffy, cynical, down-on-his-luck robot-boxing promoter trying to claw his way out of debt while also learning to care for his estranged son. His unlikely ticket to the big time comes in the form of an obsolete training ‘bot rescued from the scrap-heap.
The key here is that the ‘bot comes with a “shadow function,” a control mechanism that allows it to mimic the movements of its handler. This gives Charlie, who was a boxer himself prior to the human version of the sport being outlawed, an edge. It also helps him bond with his son and allows him achieve that which he could not when his own career was cut short by the, ahem, “rise of the machines.”
The glue that holds it all together is Hugh Jackman. His star shines brighter than the digital glimmer of “Real Steel’s” computer-generated combatants.
Something of a pop culture whirligig, “Real Steel” is powered by the hyperactive glee of a child-like sugar-rush. Unfortunately, the drama of its father-son plotline and romantic subplot is just as saccharine, not to mention hopelessly formulaic.
“Real Steel” is nothing more than flashy fun, despite its attempts to resonate on an emotional level. It’s optimistic escapist entertainment, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Ultimately, though, while it has its charms, it’s flat-out forgettable. Lacking finesse and impact, “Real Steel” floats like an elephant and stings like a slug.