The robot-boxing movie Real Steel encourages a kind of cognitive dissonance: One side of the brain—the one sipping port and contemplating the latest issue of The Paris Review—dismisses it as stupid, beneath contempt. The other—the one eating Fritos and scratching its balls—snorts in approval, letting out a lobotomized Butt-head chuckle. So Real Steel falls somewhere near the intersection of elation and shame, essentially reworking the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling non-classic Over The Top for the equally ridiculous sport of android fisticuffs, and mostly getting away with it. Part of the film’s appeal is that it never once calls attention to its own patent absurdity: It has an orphan, a dame, and a rusty old fighter nobody believed in, and damned if it doesn’t play every terrible cliché completely straight.
In a big, affable performance, Hugh Jackman stars as an ex-boxer who turns his marginal talent to gambling and underground fight promotion when robots replace humans in the ring. When a bull crushes his robot in a state-fair event, Jackman is left owing tens of thousands of dollars without having a machine to bring in revenue. His poor fortune also affects his on-again/off-again girlfriend (Evangeline Lilly), who risks having to close down the old boxing gym Jackman was using as a training facility. His luck turns around when he gets a fresh influx of cash in exchange for temporarily caring for his 11-year-old son Dakota Goyo, and the boy proves an enthusiastic charge. After discovering an old sparring robot in a junkyard, Goyo convinces Jackman to use his old training techniques to give the machine an edge over more high-tech models.
All roads lead to an arena confrontation with Zeus, a robot with both a cold Brigitte Nielsen-esque Russian owner and a vain, arrogant Japanese designer, and which no doubt has the most diabolically evil circuit-board this side of a Hewlett Packard. Having robots square off in a ring shouldn’t work as well as it does; after all, the whole point of boxing is two fleshpods hurting each other, and without the threat of bodily harm, the stakes seemingly dissipate. Yet Real Steel barrels through its underdog premise anyway—if this were made in the early ’40s, Barton Fink would be hired to write it—and has us rooting for Jackman’s undersized scrapper as if he were Rocky himself. And as a bonus, he dances, and nobody can do The Robot like the real thing.