Strong production values and another charismatic performance by triple-threat talent Hugh Jackman help keep this heavy-metal offspring of "Rocky" and "Transformers" out of the cinematic junk heap. Considering "Real Steel" is essentially Hollywood's big-budget version of the simplistic Rock'em Sock'em Robots game first introduced in the 1960s, the crowd-pleasing final product is a pleasant surprise.
But don't get too excited just yet. The film is also chock-full of cliches and product placement, is thoroughly predictable, and features a lot of loud clanging and smashing that occasionally rivals the auditory barrage of a restaurant kitchen. Fortunately the eye candy outweighs the ear carnage.
In the not-too-distant future, the sport du jour is robot boxing. Seems fight-hungry citizens have tired of watching people beat each other up (weak humans) and prefer to see sophisticated and expensive robots pound each other into scrap metal. One of the most notable robot-boxing trainers (i.e., the guy who works the remote control) is washed-up fighter Charlie Kenton (Jackman).
Charlie is down on his luck -- with debts and beer bottles piling up -- when he gets word that the mother of his estranged young son (Dakota Goyo as Max) has died, leaving Max without a guardian. Max's aunt Debra (Hope Davis) and her well-to-do hubby Marvin (James Redhorn) are eager for custody, but the unscrupulous Charlie sees an opportunity to make a quick buck. Marvin agrees to pay off Charlie for the right to adopt Max, assuming Charlie can temporarily care for the defiant little tyke while Debra and Marvin are traveling overseas.
Charlie enlists the help of his longtime friend and former lover Bailey (Evangeline Lilly of TV's "Lost") and plans to hit the robot-boxing circuit with Max in tow. Charlie's effort with the once-dominant robot boxer Noisy Boy falters, forcing Charlie and Max to scour through a junkyard to find spare parts. A bit of serendipity leads Max to discover a long-buried "sparring bot" named Atom. Charlie and Max take Atom on the circuit and it (he?) excels, leading up to a climactic championship match with an undefeated robot boxer dubbed Zeus.
Jackman, looking more ripped than ever, puts in a strong performance despite the cookie-cutter material. The way Charlie treats Max initially is pretty despicable, though he softens as the bond between the two develops. Lilly is also impressive in her first big film role and the chemistry between Jackman and her is palpable. Youngster Goyo holds his own, never really lifting the film but never bringing it down, either.
The filmmakers miss a real opportunity to explore the inner workings and origin of Atom, easily the most interesting character. Atom seems to be more evolved and self-aware than a standard robot, but little time is spent on exploring what makes the enigmatic machine tick. "Real Steel" has a bit of "Mad Max" energy that gives it an added spark, especially during a fight scene in a rough-and-rowdy arena called "The Zoo."
"Steel" is a visually impressive actioner boosted by the earnest portrayals of Jackman and Lilly, even if the story is far too robotic.