By David Germain, The Associated Press
"Real Steel" dresses up a bad idea -- robots boxing -- with all the computer effects and heavy-metal action that Hollywood can buy. But that doesn't cover up the fact that it's a bad idea. Really bad.
And "Real Steel" is a really bad movie, with some embarrassingly awful moments for Hugh Jackman, whose silly Wolverine whiskers in the "X-Men" flicks seem quite distinguished compared to the outlandish trappings here.
A horribly predictable mash-up of "Rocky," "The Champ" and Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, "Real Steel" puts director Shawn Levy (the "Night at the Museum" movies) in contention with fellow robot handler Michael Bay for the title of worst blockbuster filmmaker in show business.
With a team of executive producers that includes Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, Levy has all the resources a director could ever want. It all goes toward punishing noise and machine mayhem, the fight scenes stitched together by the humdrum drama of an annoying deadbeat dad connecting with his annoying young son.
Jackman's Charlie Kenton is an ex-boxer scraping by in the near future as a promoter of brawling robots, which have taken over the sport from human fighters. Charlie's on the seedy side of boxing, his secondhand 'bots trading punches at fairgrounds and other unsanctioned venues while the big boys duke it out in televised league fights at huge arenas.
A sleazebag who's built a life on skipping out on his debts and responsibilities, Charlie suddenly finds himself on the road with his 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), after the boy's mother dies.
Short on cash and needing a new robot, Charlie heads to the junkyard to pilfer parts so he can piece together a new fighter. There, Max stumbles on Atom, an outdated sparring robot that turns out to be a diamond in the rough, a scrappy machine that becomes a sensation on the fight circuit.
From there, the drama as developed by screenwriter John Gatins and two others who share story credit goes just where you expect it to, without a ripple of surprise or originality. Father and son squawk and fight, find common ground and gradually make their way toward becoming a family, while Atom gets an underdog shot against the world champion.
It's pretty nauseating, though not as nauseating as some of the images of Jackman shadow-boxing outside the ring during the climactic match. He looks quite the fool doing it, capping an uneven performance in which Jackman generally is out-acted by the robots. Jackman is overly eager at the start to show how slimy Charlie is, and that makes the guy's abrupt transformation into father-of-the-year material all the more unconvincing.
Goyo overdoes it, too, his earnestness growing tiresome and eventually cloying by the time Max becomes a ringside idol himself for his dance routines alongside Atom.
The rest of the cast is thrown in as spare parts: Evangeline Lilly as a robot mechanic and Charlie's sometime love interest; Anthony Mackie as a bookie and fight organizer; Hope Davis as an aunt aiming to adopt Max; and Kevin Durand as a rival fight promoter.
None of the humans have anything interesting to do. The robots are the stars. Life-size versions of some robots were built for the actors to perform with, while the fight scenes were created using human boxers whose movements were digitally recorded as the basis for the computer-animated robots' motions (Sugar Ray Leonard helped choreograph the fights).
The bouts are deafening and bruising, more like demolition derbies than sporting events. It's hard to buy into the notion that fans could ever be as rabid to watch a couple of machines tear each other apart as they are to see two men sweating and straining and bleeding on the canvas. Without human consequence, where's the drama?
"People wanted more carnage, more show," Charlie says, explaining why robots replaced people in the ring. The metallic carnage of "Real Steel" rings hollow, though.
The filmmakers took the basic idea of robot boxers from a short story by "I Am Legend" author Richard Matheson, which previously was made into an episode of "The Twilight Zone."
The only advancement "Real Steel" brings is production values. Hollywood robots have come a long way since that quaint, old, black-and-white show. Storytelling, not so much.
Rating: PG-13 for some violence, intense action and brief language.
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.