(CNN) — The trouble with boxing is, people get hurt. Some time soon, according to “Real Steel,” the sport will get a radical technological upgrade and human pugilists will be replaced by robots; combatants who will fight to the death every time they climb into the ring.
In a sport like that the machines might get the glory, but you will still find human interest in the corner, where trainers have been replaced by computer programmers, engineers, welders, and if you go down far enough, old fashioned managers like Charlie (Hugh Jackman), an ex-boxer so deep in debt he’s nearly out for the count.
Reunited with the 11-year-old son he’s practically forgotten, Charlie promptly sells him to the boy’s aunt and uncle. But the boy won’t be sidelined quite so easily. He’s a fight fan himself, and he means to go on the road with his old man and more importantly with the junkyard sparring bot “Atom” he rescues from scrap.
This is “Transformers” for kids, basically — and yes, I appreciate you might think “Transformers” would have that demographic covered, but apparently nobody told Michael Bay, who pitched his three movies at teens and up.
“Night at the Museum” director Shawn Levy does not make the same mistake. Although it’s rated PG-13 for some mildly adult language and robot-on-robot violence (and I think we can be sure that no robots were harmed in the course of this film), “Real Steel” is fundamentally about a son reconnecting with his dad, something Levy never lets us forget for long.
It’s as corny as Kansas, but the mix of old fashioned heart and new fangled animatronic cyber tech will make this picture a winner for fathers and sons (Levy has squeezed in a cameo for his three young daughters, but the female characters are mostly relegated to cheering from the stands).
Hugh Jackman is doing a minor variation on his Logan signature tune, but for the best part of the movie he lets the obnoxiously talented Dakota Goyo as his son runs rings around him, stealing one scene after another. It’s an uneven fight — rigged by screenwriter John Gatins, aided and abetted by Levy — but it’s fun to see the kid make a chump of the champ.
Surprisingly, Levy resists turning Atom into an autonomous character. He does have some neat features though. He’s smaller and weaker than most of his competition, with pale blue bulbs for eyes beneath what looks like a fencing mask. But he can take a beating and in “shadow mode” he mimics his coach’s movements with lightning speed. He can dance too — like a six-foot, three-ton butterfly.
Robots aside, Levy doesn’t go in for futurism really.
The locations are steeped in the heartland: a cavernous boxing gym that smacks of the 1920s. Charlie’s truck looks like something out of a 1940s film. Neon motel signs, back-country roads, and an old Detroit auto plant repurposed as a post-industrial sports arena. There’s a broader nostalgia at work here, as if the fight’s gone out of the whole country and one plucky kid and his pet robot could galvanize the whole show.
Did they really need to fall back on xenophobic shorthand to pump up the climactic bout, when Atom takes on Zeus, a robot combining Asian know-how and Russian money? And couldn’t someone have called time on the over-the-top product placement that clogs up the finale?
In the end, “Real Steel” won’t win any prizes for innovation, but it works — it’s a technical knockout.