It's the fight of the century - as in the 21st. In this corner, Atom, a rusting, second-generation automaton with the humility and heart of The Iron Giant. In the other, Zeus, a shiny state-of-the-art 5G robot that combines the titanium armature of The Terminator and the zirconium ego of Donald Trump.
The match between the two machines, billed as the biggest thing in boxing since the Rumble in the Jungle, is the climax of Real Steel, a futuristic Rocky set in the world of robot wrestling. The prelude to the face-off between these Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robots is the tale of Charlie (Hugh Jackman), a broken-down boxer temporarily awarded custody of Max (Dakota Goyo), the son he never knew.
In this film with echoes of The Champ, it's the daddy/sonnyboy relationship that really packs the knockout punch. Yes, it's unapologetically sentimental (and sometimes unapologetically cheesy), but Shawn Levy's film has an irresistible force.
It is earsplitting, crowd-pleasing, and, no doubt, 'bot-pleasing, too. If you told me I would get emotionally and viscerally involved in two machines punching the hard drives out of each other, I would tell you you were crazy. I would be wrong.
Levy, best known for juvenilia such as Night at the Museum, reboots a short story by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend), one that inspired "Steel," a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone starring Lee Marvin as the has-been boxer.
In Levy's version, the has-been boxer has been rendered obsolete by a sport that no longer pits man vs. man but 'bot vs. 'bot. Jackman's unscrupulous Charlie bets money he doesn't have. He has been discarded by his own sport, and along the way has rejected his own son.
After Max's mother dies, hard-time Charlie sells custodial rights to Max's aunt. She, in turn, needs to park Max for the summer because she has other plans.
This creates an opportunity for unprincipled father and estranged son to spend time together. The turning point in their mutually suspicious relations is the moment that Max rescues Atom, a discarded robot, from a scrap heap, and retools him into a fighting machine. What we have here are two underdogs and an underbot.
The tenacity of the three rejects is contagious. The choreography of the robot boxers is as graceful as champ Sugar Ray Leonard, who worked with motion-capture technicians to create the illusion of 'bots that fight like humans.
Despite an overlay of computer-generated effects onto realistic settings that meshes imperfectly and an insistent score from Danny Elfman designed to pump the tear ducts, Real Steel is a stand-up-and-cheer rouser that will move even those inclined to sit down and sneer.