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Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011 08:13 pm

This Steel is rusty

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Dakota Goyo as Max Kenton and Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton in Real Steel.

I have to admit that upon seeing the trailer for Real Steel, my inner 10-year-old perked up and said, “Wow, that looks cool!” Perhaps my reaction was rooted in the fact that my parents never did get me that “Rock ’em, Sock ’em, Robots” game I always wanted and my instant desire to see this movie was some feeble attempt to fill that void. More than likely it was the sight of the movie’s massive mechanical warriors pummeling each other. The fact that Hugh Jackman is the star of this high-concept crowd-pleaser piqued my interest as well. Though he’s made his share of clunkers, the actor never gives less than 100 percent and he has charisma to spare. Surely, he can make a fighting robot movie watchable, can’t he?

No. Steel is a bloated movie in search of an identity. Does it want to be a high-tech take on Rocky, a heartwarming father-and-son tale or a moving story of one man’s redemption? The movie flirts with all of these possible directions but can’t commit to any one of these themes. The knockout punch is that there isn’t a shred of originality present in this production and it winds up being far too dull to be worthy of our attention, let alone two hours of our lives.

Jackman is Charlie Kenton, a down-and-out former fighter who was put out to pasture before his time with the coming of robot fighting. Now he manages these steel sluggers, buying them used or rescuing a spare one from the scrap heap to earn a few bucks here and there. He’s hit rock bottom – putting on exhibitions at country fairs – when he gets the news that a former flame of his has passed away and that he now has custody of their son. A chip off the old block, Max (Dakota Goyo) is just as stubborn as his father and shows his mettle when they hit the road to tour the fight circuit for the summer, before he goes to live with his aunt (Hope Davis).

Ah yes, a whole lotta bonding goes on between the two as they climb the robot fighting ranks with a cast-off bucket of bolts that can take a punch and wear down his opponents. Problem is, there’s far too much time between fights, as father and son travel about the country and learn that there’s nothing like engaging in petty arguments to heal old wounds. Jackson does his best to make these moments seem vital and Goyo is a real find, projecting a sense of purpose and maturity that’s far beyond most 11-year-old actors. He’s fun to watch and there’s a spark between him and his veteran co-star that provide the film with its best moments.

Because their interaction is so predictable, it’s hard to become emotionally invested in their relationship and the same problem plagues the action in the ring. Nothing is really at stake here as the warriors are inanimate objects that can be repaired. When all you need is a set of socket wrenches and a blowtorch to fix the damage, well that hardly means as much as seeing a flesh and blood competitor deal with physical damage as well as spiritual and emotional harm. In the end, Real Steel’s aversion to genuine emotion results in it being counted out.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.