Movie review: Can Hugh Jackman pack a punch in Real Steel?

Oct 6, 2011 at 9:00 a.m. ET

A video game junkie’s paradise is a world where you control your robot in the boxing ring. Real Steel brings this concept alive with Hugh Jackman in a father-son tale that’s all about heart.

We've always known Hugh Jackman was an amazing actor (he had me at the Oscars with that tops and tails number!), but seeing him play a reluctant father who is suddenly reunited with his 11-year-old son in Real Steel brings our respect for this dauntless Austrian actor to a whole new level.

Real Steel

The Plot

Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, an ex-boxing contender who's now living out of his truck as he travels the countryside going to state fairs and underground boxing events with a robot boxer he commands via remote control.

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We soon learn he's got experience in the sport when we meet his ex-girlfriend Bailey Tallet, played by Evangeline Lilly of Lost and The Hurt Locker fame. She is the daughter of Charlie's trainer, who is now long gone. All that's left of this world of the past is a boxing gym where humans aren't allowed to spar anymore. The sport of traditional boxing, in the world of Real Steel has been outlawed. For good.

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Real Steel

No more human boxing

According to Charlie's character, boxing fans wanted more carnage, more blood and the sport became too dangerous for humans. So now, robots have gotten the call to get into the ring, while humans – like Jackman's character – have stepped aside to take the control like kids playing video games.

The seed of this idea comes from a short story by author Richard Matheson called "Steel." For all those diehard Steven Spielberg fans out there, you'll recognize this author as having written the source material for Spielberg's first film "Duel." The author's work is a passion for Spielberg – who produced Real Steel. So, when it came time to dig into the files and pull out a story the famed movie maker wanted to tell, Real Steel became the project for the Spielberg team.

Real Steel

What's so cool about robot boxing...?

The idea of robot boxing sounds odd until you actually see it. Then, you realize just how awesome the idea is. Clank on clank, metal hitting machine. Human-like forms twice our size battling to the system overdrive. Pretty freaking cool. The same reaction comes from Charlie's son, Max Kenton – who is played by 12-year-old actor Dakota Goyo. The two are reunited after Max's mother dies.

Charlie, however, is in no financial condition to support a son, but that doesn't stop him from using the child to get some backing money to buy a new robot boxer. Once Max finds out what his father is up to, he is genuinely interested and in more than just the state of his well being. Having a dad – deadbeat or not – who is a robot boxer is every boy's dream.

Real Steel

Like IT or not, the kid stays

This relationship, although tough at times, is the heart of the movie. Jackman portrays a man with all the edginess we've seen in him from Wolverine but also with the vulnerable side we've seen in his dramas like Deception, Australia and The Prestige. I don't need to tell you, ladies, but there's more to this mate than just the bulging biceps. But we're so glad he has those too, right?

The performance by Dakota Goyo is one to watch. He's smart, tough and innocent. He shows us his feelings without pulling the heartstrings. He is a talented dancer, and the scenes with the young actor and the robot show the love a boy can have for his toys – especially when they are 12 feet tall and controlled via remote.

The third component to this dysfunctional family is Evangeline Lilly's character. She and Charlie have an obviously troubled past of missed kisses and dashed expectations. She still has a flame for him, however unfortunate for her. It's always rough when you've got a crush on Hugh Jackman! That said, the on screen chemistry between Lilly and Jackman leaves the audience wanting more, like a love scene. But this is a kid's movie, right? Or is it?

Real Steel

There's something more than just robot boxing in this film that will appeal to adults in the audience as well. The hilarious and underused role of Anthony Mackie, who plays a charismatic announcer in the underground boxing arena, provides comedic relief when the fighting tension of father and son choke up the audience as it's bound to do.

Futuristic boxing movie, with heart

Set in the Midwest among the farmlands of county fairs, the film has a nostalgic quality that contrasts nicely to the futuristic state of affairs. Electronics are much more up-to-date and things look a little different, but not so much that you get lost in figuring out what year it is.

Comparing this movie to others, the futuristic underworld scenes will please Blade Runner fans, while those who like Rocky and Million Dollar Baby will appreciate the great boxing moments. But in the end, this isn't a film about sports or landscapes, but rather the story of father and child.

Perhaps Paper Moon is more fitting as a reference point for audiences wanting to know what they'll get if they hit the theaters opening weekend. Real Steel – the movie about robot boxing -- is really about family, love and finding a home.

Bottom line: If you swoon for Hugh Jackman and your kids love video games, Real Steel is an emotional father-son tale that packs a punch for the whole family.

Photos courtesy of DreamWorks