(director: Shawn Levy; screenwriters: John Gatins/based on a story by Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven and the short story “Steel,” by Richard Matheson; cinematographer: Mauro Fiore; editor: Dean Zimmerman; music: Danny Elfman; cast: Hugh Jackman (Charlie Kenton), Dakota Goyo (Max Kenton), Evangeline Lilly (Bailey), Anthony Mackie (Finn), Kevin Durand (Ricky), Hope Davis (Deborah Barnes), James Rebhorn (Marvin Barnes), John Gatins (Kingpin), Karl Yune (Tak Mashido), Olga Fonda (Russian Robot Owner); Runtime: 127; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Shawn Levy/Don Murphy/Susan Montford; DreamWorks Pictures; 2011)

Cliched underdog sports movie, that’s predictable, contrived and its familiar derivative plot line is put to poor use.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Cliched underdog sports movie, that’s predictable, contrived and its familiar derivative plot line is put to poor use. Mediocre commercial filmmaker Shawn Levy (“The Pink Panther”/”Night at the Museum”/”Date Night”)directs another terrible blockbuster that will nevertheless bring in a big box-office.John Gatins writes the trite screenplay as if he were a robot writing for robots, but does a nice job in a supporting role as a spunky spike-haired fight promoter. It’s based on a story by Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven and the short story “Steel,” by Richard Matheson. The schematic robotic story line channels Transformers and Rocky, and scores of other such noisy formulaic action movies. It considers itself a people’s picture, in that it tries at all costs to give the public what it thinks it wants. This shamelessly simplistic hokey film is made to order for those consumers ripe for the taking for all the pic’s product placements and viewers who can become teary-eyed after absorbing all the awkward sentimental blows of such mush.

An obnoxious but feisty 11-year-old, Max (Dakota Goyo), gives an obnoxious down-and-out irresponsible adult Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), his long-lost father, life lessons. The part about bonding between estranged father and son seemed lacking in credibility, especially since there was no chemistry between them. I found myself rooting for this overlong and overwrought pile of scrap-metal film, where everything about the story was obvious early on, to just end before I fall to the mat from boredom.This was one of the lesser inspirational boxing pics.The acting is so bad that I found myself wishing for Adam Sandler to be in the Jackman role, even though he’s someone I do not admire. But at least he would be more cuddly to his son as a single parent. Everyone shouts their lines into the camera or is caught wildly cheering in crowd reaction shots, which makes the humans sound as tinny as the robots.Every character is a plot device and given as much depth and personality as the robots.

Set in the future world of 2020, where human boxing is not allowed and robots are manipulated to be boxers, the alcoholic and washed-up fighter Charlie Kenton, once a promising ex-fighter but now on the skids, handles giant steel robots in the boxing ring in underground venues. In a country fairground match between Charlie’s robot and a live bull, his robot is destroyed and he runs off before paying off a $20,000 side bet with the local redneck loudmouth (Kevin Durand). Someone who vows vengeance.

Charlie then appears at a court hearing to learn his estranged wife died and his son Max is wanted for adoption by the kid’s aunt (Hope Davis). Auntie’s rich older hubby (James Rebhorn) is shaken down by the nasty Charlie to fork over $50,000 for him to sign over custody rights of the child to his mom’s sister, who badly wants the kid and hubby wants to do what he can to please her. Since auntie and her man are vacationing in Europe over the summer Charlie, as part of the bargain made with Marvin, keeps the kid with him until the summer’s end and uses Marvin’s dough to buy a once great Japanese robot.

The video playing techie kid at first despises his asshole dad, but loves dad’s new fighting robot and with that as a starting point gives his pop a second chance. The father and son bond that summer over their robotic love affair and go on tour with their fighting robot, while dad’s main squeeze, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), who inherited her father’s gym, which doubles for the workplace for the robots, offers her support for her man just like her dad did when he trained the boxer.

The violent action scenes have the humans operate the 7 feet 6 inches tall to 8-foot-5 robots by voice-activated remote control, as the robots pummel each other like boxers in front of excited crowds. Charlie’s robots have names like Ambush, Noisy Boy and Atom. The movie’s centerpiece action-packed scene has Charlie and Max’s underdog and under-sized junkyard re-built former sparring boxer robot, Atom, take on in a big-time arena the elite world champ Zeus, who is controlled by the unlikable wealthy Russian woman (Olga Fonda) and the vain sneering world famous Japanese designer (Karl Yune). Unfortunately the movie is drained of all humanity, so whatever goes down seems like play acting and can be easily excused as mindless entertainment for the masses.

Of note, Sugar Ray Leonard trained Hugh Jackman to box (those scenes never made it into the pic) and was the technical adviser for all the robot boxing action in the ring.

Real Steel

REVIEWED ON 10/11/2011 GRADE: C-