ROCKY goes five rounds with Short Circuit in Real Steel, a futuristic action adventure that handsomely showcases Hugh Jackman’s rippling muscles.
Directed with a heavy hand by Shawn Levy, the crowd-pleasing film hinges on a familiar clash between father and estranged son, using the fictitious sport of robot boxing to salve old wounds and build bridges towards a brighter future.
It’s all terribly wholesome and cloying, adding a sweet, but largely chaste romantic subplot to counter all of the testosterone and male posturing.
Action sequences are breathlessly choreographed, pitting mechanised warriors against one another in a battle to the system malfunction (aka death).
Limbs are torn asunder, heads ripped off and hydraulic fluid spurts like arterial blood as human punters bet hundreds of dollars on the outcome of each clash of the automatons.
In 2020, former boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) boxes robots for a living, but he’s on a losing streak and is massively in debt to Ricky (Kevin Durand).
Charlie thinks his prayers have been answered when he sells custody of his 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo) to the boy’s aunt and uncle (Hope Davis, James Rebhorn) for 100,000 dollars.
As part of the deal, he must look after the boy for the summer with the help of boxing gym owner and best friend Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly).
Father and son unexpectedly bond over an abandoned sparring ‘bot called Atom and together they train the ancient machine to punch and stomp up the rankings of the World Robot Boxing league (WRB) to a championship showdown with the fearsome Zeus, designed by Tak Mashido (Karl Yune) and owned by Russian ice maiden Farra Lemcova (Olga Fonda).
Real Steel is entertaining if overlong and Jackman and youngster Goyo share a winning screen chemistry that holds our interest through some plodding interludes.
Lilly looks beautiful in a two-dimensional supporting role, ultimately coming off second best to Atom, who seems strangely human, staring into the camera with his glowing blue eyes.
The prospect that the plucky sparring ‘bot might end up on a scrap heap by the end credits is a matter of genuine concern.
While Real Steel’s special effects hardware is mightily impressive, combining John Rosengrant’s animatronics with metal-crunching digital trickery, the software of John Gatins’s script is infected with the sentimentality and cliche viruses.
The dramatic trajectory of the relationship between father and son is achingly predictable and we know, as soon as Charlie tearfully implores his son, “What do you want from me?” that the tyke will angrily riposte, “I want you to fight for me.”
The shameless emotional manipulation is complete with a dewy-eyed confession from Jackman to his pint-sized co-star – “You deserve better than me”. He has a point.