Rocky with robots; The Champ with microchips. Real Steel is an amalgam of every boxing film you've ever seen with the only difference being the pugilists are not flesh and blood but, well, real steel.
But in spite of the film being cobbled together from bits and pieces - much like Atom, the fighting robot at the centre of the action - Real Steel manages to overcome any deficiencies or doubts one may have (and I had a couple going in) to succeed as popcorn entertainment.
Set in the not-too-distant future where not much has noticeably changed except for a great leap forward in robot technology, Real Steel sees fighting robots as commonplace as smartphones (and just as regularly updated), and replacing humans as the combatants in the ring.
One of those former fighter's is Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) who, without a belt to fight for, has taken to travelling the backroads of the States, attempting to make a buck off the amateur boxing 'bot circuit. Down on his luck and in debt, Charlie's fortunes take a turn when a former lover passes away and his estranged 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), is left motherless.
Charlie is happy to pass the boy off to his aunt (Hope Davis) and her rich husband (James Rebhorn), but sensing an opportunity, manages to have the rich man pay him to take the boy for the summer while the couple vacation in Italy. As far as deadbeat dads go, Charlie is as seemingly dead inside as they come.
It will come as no surprise that father and son will eventually bond, an inevitability facilitated by the discovery of an old, abandoned sparring bot named Atom who Max cleans up and decides will become a champ. The kid is nothing but persistent, almost to a fault; your tolerance for Goyo will very much depend on your tolerance for opinionated pre-teens.
More troubling for me, initially, were the fighting robots and Hugh Jackman. If the Transformers films and the climaxes of both Iron Man films taught us nothing else, it is that the sight of CGI metal men going medieval on each other does not make for great cinema.
But the 'bots here look impressive (and apparently not all of it CGI), and even more so is Shawn Levy's ability to have us care about the outcome of Atom's bouts. The film doesn't expand on the idea that Atom is more intelligent than his owners suspect, but you'll be cheering him on just the same.
As for Jackman, I'm not a fan. Yes he's charming and good looking but I've yet to find him convincing on screen. His Charlie is a grade-A jerk and hard to like, and given that the hurt at the loss of his boxing career isn't played up, his moment when it comes isn't as affecting or redemptive as the film, and the tears of Charlie's on-again-off-again girlfriend, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), would have us believe.
Still, I defy you not to be absorbed in that final bout which constitutes Real Steal's climax, as Atom takes on the undefeated champ of the pro boxing 'bot world; a Goliath of a machine named Zeus owned by a Russian millionairess, Farra Lemkova (played by the fun to say, Olga Fonda, and no doubt intended as a nod to Rocky IV's Brigitte Nielsen).
Ordinarily I'd say a film which makes you care more for a CGI robot than the human father-son relationship at its centre is a failure, but Real Steel manages to come out a winner if only on a points decision.