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Marshall Fine

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Movie Review: Real Steel

Posted: 10/04/11 10:00 AM ET

Right off the bat I've got a problem with Real Steel when the announcer for the boxing matches talks about the crowd thrilling at the sight of a robot killing another robot.

Not that I don't think our society could devolve to the point where Rock'Em-Sock'Em Robots qualifies as a major sporting event. Hey, there's a channel devoted to watching people play video games. In England, darts matches have been a TV goldmine for years.

No, it's just that robots can't be killed. They're robots, after all.

And I don't buy the idea of people caring whether one robot sledgehammers another robot into a pile of bolts and fried circuits. It's the same reason I find absolutely no excitement in the central battles of the Transformers movies.

These are machines. Period.

So no matter how much the dreaded Shawn Levy tarts up Real Steel with a hokey human story about a bad father and a bratty son or how egregiously he sugarcoats it with heartstring-tugging music that swells at key moments to tell you how to feel -- well, this is still just a movie about machines.

And not even machines with humanoid features a la A.I. or The Terminator. You felt something when the Haley Joel Osment droid got left behind or when Arnold Schwarzenegger melted himself at the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

But in this blah hybrid of Rocky and Transformers, there is a distinct lack of a rooting interest. The villains are as one-dimensional as the heroes and the robots are, well, robots. That's true even when the kid in the movie teaches his robot to dance, well, the Robot. (Har-har -- get it?)

Real Steel is set in the year 2020, when kids and punks are still cluelessly wearing t-shirts for Van Halen and the Clash, just like now. Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a one-time boxer who now stays one step ahead of his creditors, betting on the one robot boxer he owns. When his boxer is dismantled by a live bull (because of carelessness on Charlie's part during their match-up), Charlie winds up on the run from yet another guy to whom he owes money.

His salvation seems to arrive in the form of a son, Max (Dakota Goyo), he's never known. The ex-girlfriend who had and kept the boy 11 years ago is now dead; Charlie is summoned to a Texas courtroom for a custody hearing.

The boy's aunt (Hope Davis) is a wealthy suburbanite. So Charlie makes a secret deal with her husband: $100,000 for Charlie to give up custody. Just one catch: Aunt and Uncle have a summer sojourn in Italy planned and, despite their alleged familial feelings for the boy, taking him on vacation would be so inconvenient. Would Charlie mind babysitting him for the summer?

Never mind the robots -- we're already deep into warning signs of plot silliness. Is there any question where this is going? The obnoxious self-obsessed dad? The mouthy, bratty son? Traveling together o'er the highways and byways of the USA, their boxing robot at the ready to take on all comers?

Yes, we're in for deep scenes of paternal bonding, of a reprobate coming to terms with his own short-comings and trying to make amends. This is Screenwriting 101 -- the remedial course on redemption. But, in this case, with a budget well over $80 million to make this hokum seem both grand and important.

Impotent is more like it. The robot, which never speaks and barely has a face, is the most complex character in the whole thing. Meanwhile, the set-up of the finale -- a match between their robot and an undefeated behemoth called Zeus -- should have Sylvester Stallone's intellectual-property lawyers crying "Plagiarism!" any minute.

Real Steel is real junk -- megamillion-dollar, computer-animated, state-of-the-art junk. It is meant to sell Dr. Pepper, Cadillac, iPhones and all the other products that have been so inartfully scattered throughout the movie. It's also meant to sell movie tickets to people too lazy to watch anything more challenging than this brain softener.

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