Imagine what a movie about a down-on-his-luck robot boxing fighter stuck with an 11-year-old son he barely knows from an ex-girlfriend who has passed away who finds a gutsy old sparring bot that the kid spruces up and they take to a title fight against the World Robot Boxing champ would be like? Got it in your head? Congratulations, you've just plotted out Real Steel! However, the movie manages to pull of a super neat trick: Despite not really having a single surprise in its entire story, it manages to be a rock 'em, sock 'em good time without insulting your intelligence.
It really could've been a corny, treacly mess, but the kid, Dakota Goyo, is cute and precocious without you wishing a robot would fall on him. He's bright and behaves exactly as a kid who has a robot that can mimic him dancing would act. Jackman is excellent as the shifty hustler who learns to have some integrity. (Awwwww...) And the robot fights benefit from having seamless digital effects and a clear sense of pacing and geography, not relying on shaky cam and edit fu to provide energy. I've managaged to miss all of director Shawn Levy's previous movies (both Night at the Museum flicks; the Steve Martin Cheaper by the Dozen and Pink Panther remakes) other than last year's nice Steve Carrell/Tina Fey comedy Date Night, but this is a slick bit of kit.
"Predictable" is usually a pejorative and it would apply to Real Steel if it wasn't just so well done. I saw a review that dubbed it ROCK-E and that's right on the money; the crowd at my showing was cheering and clapping. (The time I saw Rocky IV at the old Americana theater with an opening weekend crowd going nuts was a singular experience.) Even my girlfriend, whom I pretty much dragged along and went in expecting to hate it, grudgingly admitted to liking it. When family-friendly is considered another pair of dirty words, it's cool to see something for kids of all ages that doesn't make the older half feel dirty for being there.
A couple of quibbles: The kid doesn't seem to be too affected by the death of his Mom - if Disney flicks have no problem with whacking Mom, why so shy here, especially when it could've led to the improbably cute roboboxer mechanic Evangeline Lilly balking at being a surrogate mother. I suppose they didn't want to go too heavy on the maudlin. Also, for a movie set in 2027, the product placement is pretty 2011 - Sprint will still have the same slogan, Bing will have stadium naming rights, and Microsoft will only be up to the "Xbox 720" with the same logo design as the Xbox 360. Other than a few futuristic-looking cars and the cell phones and computers having transparent glass screens (have you ever tried to use a computer where the windows have transparency turned on so you can see through them? Then you know clear screens wouldn't work) there is little to indicate this is the future.
However, all told, unless you're a cynical indie hipster hater opposed to having fun at the movies, Real Steel is the real entertainment deal. Also, if you're in Detroit, it's fun to play "spot the locations."
Score: 8/10. Catch a matinee.