A bad boxing movie in Hollywood is as rare as a good video-game movie. It’s certainly possible to make one, but you have to go out of your way to cock up something so simple. It’s like boiling water in hell: The Rocky template is practically impervious to destruction. To truly botch a decent David-versus-Goliath underdog tale, you have to be a special kind of incompetent, and for nearly three-quarters of Real Steel, Shawn Levy manages that impossible feat. He directs a stubbornly hackneyed, willfully tedious, adamantly dopey boxing flick full of leaden, unlikable characters. But in the end, even a director as powerfully maladroit as Shawn Levy can’t bungle something as inherently rousing as a Rocky finale. That’s not a compliment to Levy; it’s simply an acknowledgement that he has a pulse and that blood occasionally travels to his brain.
Real Steel is a basic meat (Rocky)-and-potatoes (The Game Plan) studio formula. Set in 2027 where everything looks the same and Eminem is still pumping out soundtrack hits, Levy’s film follows a washed-up boxer, Charlie (Hugh Jackman), who was never very good to begin with. Things have changed since his boxing days, however: Men no longer beat the shit out of each other, they’ve left that to the robots, which are operated by remote control like video games. Typically, these robots fight until one falls apart, and that’s where we find Charlie: Losing a rust-heap clunker to a bull at a fair. Considerably in debt, Charlie stumbles on good fortune when his ex-wife and the mother of the son he abandoned at birth dies, and Charlie is able to wheedle some cash out of his former in-laws in exchange for handing over custody. However, Charlie also agrees to take care of his kid, Max (Dakota Goyo), for the summer before giving him up. After father and son blow that cash on another robot that’s destroyed by Charlie’s arrogance, they stumble upon an early generation sparring robot in a scrap yard. Through the power of *love* and the magic of Hugh Jackman’s eye crinkles, they turn that robot into a contender.
The first two acts of Real Steel are an exceedingly frustrating exercise in tedium: It’s stale, generic, follow-the-bouncing ball filmmaking at its worse. The 11-year-old — who shamelessly slurps Dr. Peppers throughout the entire film — is like the anti-Fanning: An awkward, wooden molasses-mouth covered in bangs. Hugh Jackman barrels along like an auction barker on Adderall; he looks during the entire film like he’s on the brink of breaking out into song. Evangeline Lilly, who plays the love interest, is largely seen in crowd shots during boxing matches clapping and yelling like the love child of Jodie Foster’s Nell and Cuba Gooding’s Radio. She is hilariously terrible. The script is mechanically written, the performances are weak sauce, and there’s enough obnoxiously swelling music to short-circuit a hearing aid.
And yet, as loathe as I am to admit it, the robot boxing matches are far more compelling than they have any right to be, the finale is family-film rousing, and in the last act, Hugh Jackman turns on that irresistible Lipton Iced Tea commercial charm. That level of daffy jackassery is toxic in its infectiousness. Once he starts shadow-boxing, there’s too much Jackman to resist. You can’t fight it. You will fall under his spell; his winsome goofiness will turn you into a wide-eyed puddle of adoration.
Is Jackman and the Rocky formula enough to redeem Real Steel? If you’re a 12-year-old boy, then absolutely. I don’t know where robot boxing falls on your moral spectrum, but I’d take a pre-teen to see Real Steel, as long as we had a long talk afterwards about the evils of product placement. Indeed, it’s as though Real Steel were written by a 12 year old for 12 year olds, and to that extent, it succeeds. If there’s not a kid in your life to see it with, however, it’s a hard movie to recommend simply because 75 percent of the film is a clunky slog and there’s not nearly enough robot violence to satiate a blood-thirsty adult. But then again, Evangeline Lilly’s crowd shots are almost as amusing as Brendan Fraser at the Golden Globes, and that’s gotta be worth something. Just maybe not $10.