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'Real Steel': Sock 'Em, Rocky Robot!

<p><strong>Fists Of Steel:</strong> Robot-boxing trainer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) makes an underdog discovery in Atom, an outdated robot with surprising potential. </p>
Walt Disney Studio Pictures

Fists Of Steel: Robot-boxing trainer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) makes an underdog discovery in Atom, an outdated robot with surprising potential.

Shall I compare thee to something other than a robot boxing movie?

That's really what the viewer must ask herself about Real Steel. Are we judging this film as a piece of art, alongside our literate dramas and clever comedies? Or are we judging it against what we would logically expect from a movie about robots of the future beating the bejesus out of each other — grading, in other words, on the kind of extravagantly generous curve previously known only to teachers marking up math tests the day after the local sports franchise wins a national championship?

Real Steel is not what you would call "good." The dialogue is an unmusical clatter of cliches, the plot is predictable enough that you could use its straight lines to hang pictures, much of the acting is reminiscent of a Saturday Night Live parody, and you could carve more sharply defined characters out of an ice-cream cone with your tongue. It is an overstuffed Dagwood sandwich of a thing, piled to a teetering height with person-person fighting, robot-robot fighting, robot-animal fighting, a cute kid, a pretty girl, training montages, rural scenery, meanies with strong accents and an illicit fighting club called "The Zoo."

Taking place in a not-too-distant future that's neither utopian nor dystopian, but kind of semi-topian, Real Steel follows Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), a former boxer who participates in the sport of robot fighting. (According to the Steel timeline, human boxers will get out of the game soon because they can't hit hard enough to make audiences happy — so enjoy those humans pounding on each other while you still can.) In a world where there's no more human boxing, Charlie is a charmer/degenerate/bum lugging around a scrappy bot who fights at state fairs. He's not at the level of "league fights" — you know, the World Robot Boxing League, which is known, because it must be, as "the show."

Through an unlikely sequence of events involving a conniving sidewinder, Charlie falls on hard times. Through an even more unlikely series of events, he takes possession of his long-lost 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo) and starts lugging him around, too. There's also an ex-girlfriend (Evangeline Lilly) who now runs a dusty old boxing gym, where her deceased father once mentored Charlie as a young fighter. (She's trying to save this place, Charlie!)

<p><strong>Million-dollar daughter:</strong> Bailey (Evangeline Lilly, right) runs the boxing gym where her late father once trained Charlie, who apparently coulda been a contender.</p>
Melissa Moseley / DreamWorks

Million-dollar daughter: Bailey (Evangeline Lilly, right) runs the boxing gym where her late father once trained Charlie, who apparently coulda been a contender.

She's also a robot mechanic, mostly because somebody has to do the exposition.

(A note: This movie is being credited as based on a Richard Matheson short story called "Steel." It has, rest assured, essentially nothing to do with that story, which was the basis of a very faithful adaptation on The Twilight Zone.)

What's curious about Real Steel is that although it's bad, it's not boring. Goyo is a charismatic kid with decent comic timing; Jackman ably puts himself forward as the requisite gruff-but-lovable dad. And quite frankly, the robot boxing is ... pretty cool. It deserves a 9 on a scale of 1 to "WOOO, 10, ROBOT BOXING!"

The fights are exciting. The choreographers ("choreographers"?) keep finding new and different ways to beat the nuts and bolts out of various robots, and they come up with moves like "PANIC SHIELD!" and "PAIN REVOLUTION!" that are always referred to in audible all-caps. No matter how immune you think you are, don't be surprised if a good-guy robot lands a punch on a bad-guy robot and you find yourself saying, "YYYEEEEAH!" It's just that kind of movie.

You should ideally see Real Steel, if you are to see it at all, with a rowdy room full of enthusiastic people. Even better, enthusiastic people who are seeing the movie free of charge. Ideally, enthusiastic people who are seeing the movie free of charge and have access to an open bar. Loosed from expectations and sobriety, it has a sort of freewheeling good cheer. Here, robots have names like "Zeus" and "Noisy Boy," and it doesn't seem to matter when minor scientific inconsistencies — like, for instance, employing a strategy that relies on a robot's succumbing to exhaustion — creep in.

Real Steel is ridiculous, but it is not dispiriting. If you're going to make this movie, it should be made just this way, with commitment, verve and a complete disregard for physics, robotics and environmentalism. (This is one vision of the future in which the bucolic parts of Michigan are doing just fine, thank you very much, and we have totally not messed up the Earth. Take that, Terra Nova!)

The fact that it tells an utterly predictable story doesn't mean it doesn't have its moments. It certainly contains one more opening scene set to a moody indie ballad than you will probably expect, along with several more robot hip-hop dance sequences and so much gaudy product placement you'll feel like walking out of the theater and tattooing somebody's logo on your noggin.

Believe it or not, it's kind of fun.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.