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The Independent Critic

Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Hope Davis
Shawn Levy
John Gatins (Screenplay), Dan Gilroy (Story), Jeremy Leven (Story)
Rated PG-13
127 Mins.
Walt Disney Studios
Way too numerous to list here...truly an impressive package (I've always wanted to hear that!).

 "Real Steel" Review 
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Admit it. If you're planning to catch Hugh Jackman's latest film Real Steel, you're doing so either because you're a huge Hugh Jackman fan or you've caught Disney's advertising for the film and are expecting a variation of the Transformers films.

I don't believe that Real Steel is the film that Michael Bay was trying to make, though I do believe that Real Steel is the film that Michael Bay should have been trying to make all this time. Real Steel has been referred to by some as a sort of Rocky with robots, a not inaccurate description that gives indication of the film's mixture of high tech with high and hyped humanity.

Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a once promising fighter who got knocked out of a job when fighting between humans was outlawed. Rather than humans, robots now fight in the ring and Charlie has long barely existed on the fringes of the fighting world with his less than impressive, second tier robot that has left Charlie poor and in debt to a few folks in a world where being in doubt is frowned upon. When his robot is left in tatters after a particularly mismatched bout, Charlie is left even further in debt and needing to find a way to get another robot.

Then, 11-year-old Max (Dakota Goyo) comes into his life. Max is Charlie's long lost son. Charlie abandoned him as a baby and isn't particularly fond of keeping him now, but the death of Max's mom leaves no options until Max's Aunt Debra (Hope Davis) and her rich husband (James Rebhorn) seek to raise the boy. Charlie offers to sell off his guardianship rights for $100,000, but Debra and hubby have one disclaimer. Charlie must care for the lad for the summer.

Suddenly, Charlie has enough to erase some debt and snag a new robot.

It may surprise you where the film goes next. In a film that so highly emphasizes the world of extreme technology, Real Steel spends a terrific amount of time emphasizing the very real human relationships that surround the technology. Real Steel is not just a high tech action flick, but a surprisingly effective father/son flick, a good ole' fashioned sports movie and even a boy and his dog movie. In other words, all this technology serves a function in the film and the stories within the film allow these rebots to come even more vividly to life.

Eventually, Max finds his own robot named Atom, the sort of trash heap robotic fighter whose name would be Rocky if he were a human being.

Oh, wait.

It may not surprise you that Atom ends up being one kick-butt robot who keeps on winning and, in so doing, not only raises Charlie out of the ashes of life but also fuels an inspirational and feel good father/son relationship that feels perfectly at home amidst all of this gloriously utilized technology.

Yes, this is a feel good sports/action film with robots.

Who'd a thunk it?

Hugh Jackman is terrific here, having nearly perfected the art of playing the jack*** with a heart-filled center. Jackman is never so arrogant and obnoxious that you don't buy his growing relationship with his son, but he carries enough of that burned-out, washed up fighter that his rough edges are also incredibly believable. It's a great performance in an unexpectedly pleasing film. Dakota Goyo is also rock solid as young Max, a young man who has been victimized by his circumstances but who is never a victim. Evangeline Lilly is here but under-utilized as Bailey, Charlie's longtime friend who takes a shine to Max and helps him fix up the broken and frail Atom.

The technology utilized includes motion-capture and animatronics, a weaving together that is seamless and aesthetically pleasing. Director Shawn Levy, responsible for the Night at the Museum films among many others, clearly gets that the technology needs to serve the film and makes sure that it does. The film is inspired, very loosely, by a 1956 short story called "Steel" by Richard Matheson but has been massively altered for the big screen (This short story was also at one point adapted into a Twilight Zone episode). Levy, who has created his share of abysmal cinema, pays close attention to the robotic choreography (Sugar Ray Leonard was a consultant) and manages to create genuinely exciting robotic fight matches that climax with a terrific, 15-minute bout between Atom and an intimidating creature known as Zeus.

While Real Steel is far from a masterpiece and certainly won't work for all, it's a surprisingly effective and entertaining techno-sports, father/son, human drama with something that should please most folks who are already thinking "I want to go catch this film." On the other hand, if you're one of the folks who are watching Disney's slightly off-base marketing for the film and thinking "That's just another mans vs. machines film," you should definitely reconsider.

Real Steel is the real deal.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic