"REAL Steel" sounds like some deadly concoction from the Hollywood meth lab of explosively bad ideas.
Blend residue from the tail end of the "Rocky" franchise with the worst elements of "Transformers." Add to that Hugh "Swordfish" Jackman's unerring instinct for the worst script available and director Shawn Levy's talent for making any material feel like a sequel to something, and you've got the ingredients for a massive overdose of badness.
And yet, in practice, "Real Steel" turns out to be less toxic than you'd expect, if you take it as a family picture aimed at boys, which it is, and grant that boys have an endless appetite for robot smashing, which they do.
First, though, you have to get past the goofball premise. In the near future - so near it looks like last week (judging by the autos) - human boxing has been banned, so boxing fans have taken to watching robot fights. There are big fights sanctioned by the world robot league, and unsanctioned fights in abandoned warehouses and zoos.
Speaking as a boxing fan, I can say confidently that this is horsebleep. If you ban boxing, boxing fans are not suddenly going to take an interest in the fight equivalent of a monster truck jam. You can't even get boxing snobs to watch MMA.
On the other hand, to a post-boxing target audience that thinks of boxers as washed-up athletes who make cameos in "Hangover" movies, this is all likely to make sense.
The washed-up fighter in "Real Steel" is Charlie (Jackman), a former contender who lost his shot at the title and now, in the realm of robot fighting, uses his meager funds to buy cast-off robots and fight on the smalltown circuit.
He's always on the run, deeply in hock and one step ahead of debt collectors.
His fast-buck instincts extend to parenting, and when his ex-wife dies and custody of his estranged son (Dakota Goyo) becomes an issue, Charlie finds a way to leverage the situation for $50,000.
He also gets stuck with the boy for a summer, but the kid turns out to be a robot-boxing geek, and together they spend their limited time and money rehabbing a junkyard robot and taking it out on the underground circuit.
"Real Steel" seems designed to add a human element often missing from "Transformers." People operate the robot boxers via remote control, so the machines become mechanical extensions of the human characters.
Much thought has gone into the design and look of the various machines, so they emerge as distinct entities, if not personalities.
Most of the personality is provided by young actor Goyo, as Charlie's son. He's a watchable kid, comfortable and natural in front of the camera, and makes the most scripted lines feel relatively painless. Evangeline Lilly plays the robot engineer with a crush on Charlie, and you know this is a kids' movie because Charlie does nothing about it.
The movie, by the way, bears little resemblance to Richard Matheson's short story from which it is loosely derived. That story, "Steel," was about a boxer who poses as a robot in order to fight one, and turned up as a "Twilight Zone" episode starring Lee Marvin.