‘Real Steel’ (2011) review: Robots and corporate advertising

Robots rock heartstrings, sock each other

“Transformers” meets “Rocky”? How can that not win? Throw in a little “E.T.” and you have a bona fide film designated to pull at your heartstrings with brutal efficiency.

And while you’re enjoying some Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em robots, why not have a Dr Pepper? Or renew your Sprint contract? Whether a playful wink to the audience regarding the corporate nature surrounding the competitive world of boxing (or most anything involving mind-boggling amounts of money), or some blatant advertising in and of itself, “Reel Steel” is saturated in in-your-face product placement. But hey, if you like Dr Pepper, you’re good to go.

In essence, “Real Steel” is an underdog drama, programmed to render your heat in twine with its battling robots and their semi-human aura. Metallic carnage is everywhere, with wires and gadgets being ripped asunder from these competing mechs. Throughout all the nail-biting bouts and emotional epiphanies, though, you can’t help but realize just how mechanical this movie really is.

We’re quickly introduced to Hugh Jackman’s less-than-reputable character, Charlie Kenton, a down-and-out former boxer turned junkyard fight promoter on the underground robot boxing circuit. This world, with its eye-popping number of wind turbines, has replaced human boxers with robot ones. Because if we can’t see some heads pop off, then it’s not worth it.

Charlie soon becomes caretaker to his estranged 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), an intelligent and fiercely loyal little kid. But despite how amazing his son is, and what a rare opportunity this is, Charlie would rather drop Max off with his former sweetheart/current landlord, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), the owner of a boxing gym that doubles as a robot workshop.

After losing a match yet again (and betting himself into the red), Charlie, with Max in tow, tries to salvage a working robot from a junkyard. Max instead stumbles across an earlier generation robot named Atom. Charlie sees little immediate value in the sparring bot, which means he has no value to him. But max works all night to save it from the scrap heap.

This type of attitude is typical Charlie, who would sell his own son if it netted him some cash. *cough* You never truly feel Charlie becomes a good dad. He simply becomes a kinder shark.

And it works for him. This new, more violent world is cutthroat. Everything on two legs, whether human or mechanized, throws viscerally exciting punches. The only soft touch is the growing relationship between Max and Atom, including a brilliant dance sequence meant to entertain the fans. This is boxing, after all.

“Real Steel” is based partly on Richard Matheson’s 1950s short story “Steel,” which was later adapted into an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” starring Lee Marvin. The movie’s story is credited to Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven, its screenplay to John Gatins.

There’s the perfunctory emotional challenges the protagonists face, especially regarding Charlie’s and Max’s relationship. Then there’s the main match-up that’s central to this type of movie: Atom, the junkyard underdog with its fascinating “shadow” mode that allows it to mimic it controller, against Zeus, the preeminent fighting force on the professional circuit.

“Real Steel” won’t surprise you. In fact, it works hard not to. You’ll root for the boy and his toy, even if the odds are stacked against them. You’ll end up feeling giddy, even if you know this is corporate manipulation at its best.

Still, can you really beat fighting robots? All you need now is that Dr Pepper.

Three robotic stars out of five.

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Hugh Jackman is shown in a scene from "Real Steel." (Photo credit: Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures)

Hugh Jackman is shown in a scene from “Real Steel.” (Photo credit: Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures)

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