By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Robots aren't more than meet the eye in Real Steel. They don't transform into souped-up cars and trucks, or speak like Dolbyized intercoms. They don't even fly. What they do is bash each other to bolts, in cage matches staged to entertain whooping yahoos.
There's a cottage industry for this stuff in 2027, which doesn't look much different than 2011. Those jet packs we were promised still haven't arrived. People continue to use Hewlett-Packard notebooks despite the company's current slump, and Dr Pepper hasn't changed its can design. Product placement apparently doesn't have a future beyond now.
Real Steel is sci-fi without the science, and the fiction is strictly 20th century, straight out of Rocky knockoffs. Director Shawn Levy handled the past better with his Night at the Museum flicks. The movie resembles, but isn't based upon, those Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots that entertained 1960s kids for about 20 minutes on Christmas morning. Nobody spent two hours knocking a playmate's plastic block off.
The best thing about Levy's movie is retaining that sense of childish interest. Hugh Jackman is billed above the title but the real star is 12-year-old Dakota Goyo, who plays his son. Goyo is a feisty little cuss, with a potty mouth that nobody seems to mind. His role as Max Kenton provides plenty of chances to defy Dad's authority, and children can relate to that.
Max earned that chip on his shoulder after his father Charlie (Jackman) abandoned him shortly after birth, and sold away his custody rights when Mom died. Charlie was a palooka boxer who later got into the robot fight game, ran up gambling debts and generally acted irresponsibly. He grudgingly takes charge of Max for a summer, and the pair renovate Atom, an outdated robot with glowing baby blue eyes, for additional underdog effect.
Atom compiles a nice record of knockouts, drawing attention from the sport's evil champions, robo-mad scientist Tak Mashido (Karl Yune) and Farra Lemcova (Olga Fonda), who sounds like Natasha Fatale from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons without saying "moose and squirrel." Their robot Zeus is the baddest of the bunch, so you can guess who's matched in the climactic Big Fight, and who will win.
The fight scenes are amusing, and the notion of commanding a ton of metallic mayhem with a video game controller is a decent fantasy for gamers. I prefer the opening sequence when Charlie pits a 'bot against a raging bull at a county fair. Watching a bovine get body slammed skips the Transformers comparison the rest of Real Steel can't avoid.
Real Steel is likewise loud and dumb, with cartoonish moments for human actors to play, and feminine eye candy (Evangeline Lilly this time) for lonely geeks to admire. Trim a half-hour off the running time and it might even be fun. Instead, the movie isn't very different from that Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots game: easy to sell in TV ads and soon stash away in the closet.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.