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The most interesting thing about Real Steel is how it doesn’t actually need its robots. The basic story and themes here — a father reconnecting with the son he’s never known while trying to reinvent himself in a sport that has left him behind — hardly requires 10-foot robots beating each other in order to get its point across. And yet there they are, pummeling away. The result is a mostly interesting take on a tried-and-true formula, but not without some missed opportunities.

Former boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) has seen his sport abandon humans for robot combat. Having just lost his only robot in a fight gone bad, Charlie is struggling to stay ahead of payments to a bookie (Anthony Mackie), debts to various unsavory characters (including Kevin Durand) and rent payments to Bailey (Evangeline Lilly).

When an old girlfriend dies, Charlie finds himself with custody of Max (Dakota Goyo), the boy he fathered with her. Max’s aunt Debra (Hope Davis) is eager to take custody, and it doesn’t take long for Charlie to sniff out financial opportunity. After a quick negotiation with Debra’s older and much wealthier husband, Charlie agrees to hand over custody at the end of the summer in return for $100,000. Until then, he must find some way to get along with his son despite their mutual dislike.

It turns out Max is a devout fan of robot boxing, and he soon weedles his way into accompanying Charlie on a midnight junkyard run to for parts. There Max uncovers Atom, a beat-up old sparring bot. “Built to take a lot of hits, but never dish out any real punishment,” as Charlie puts it. Taken with the robot, Max insists that Charlie schedule Atom some fights. Before long, the improbable trio is climbing the rungs of the sport towards a showdown with the reigning robotic champion.

Max is plausible in the requisite role of the cute, redemption-inspiring kid. And Hugh Jackman creates a character who is at times repugnantly selfish without losing track of his underlying capacity for decency. The filmmakers deserve credit for allowing Jackman to walk that line to a degree you don’t usually see in movies aimed at this audience. The supporting cast gets their jobs done, and the writing and directing are serviceable – there are relatively few indulgences in sentiment. The relationship dynamics, while hardly original, are well-executed.

That Charlie fights with robots rather than his own fists provides for a unique twist on the underdog plot: Charlie has no lack of confidence in himself, so the challenge of the film becomes convincing him to believe in Atom and in his relationship with Max. But besides that one story-based service, the robots primarily serve as a low-key sci-fi backdrop. There are references to seminal events in the shift to robotic combat. The film does a good job world-building, exploring both the legitimate tournaments of robotic boxing and the underground world of bets and warehouse brawls that has grown around the sport. Less plausible is the methodology for controlling the robots, usually through either hand-held remotes or voice recognition. How this kind of interface could translate into precise physical movement is a bit beyond me.

More frustratingly, the movie drops several pretty big hints that Atom’s shadow function — which allows him to mimic the moves of his human trainers — may be evolving into genuine self-awareness. But Real Steel never takes this idea anywhere. Several scenes imply a developing bond between Max and Atom, and the robot is repeatedly anthropomorphized by both the boy and the film. But how or why this occurs apart from the requirements of the plot isn’t clear.

Nor is Atom’s relationship with Charlie, his putative trainer, ever developed. How does Atom feel towards Charlie? Does he trust him? See him as a father figure? Is he entirely indifferent? For that matter, how does Atom feel about his role in this ragtag trio? He is the one expected to enter the ring again and again, enduring countless rounds of severe physical punishment, yet the decision to put him there was made unilaterally by Charlie and Max. Is this a path Atom himself would choose if given the chance? What are the moral or ethical implications bubbling around here if the robot has indeed developed a personality? Atom does not say, and the film does not ask.

All this does not make Real Steel a bad film, necessarily. But it does make it one with a striking lack of imagination or self-critique.

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