Rock ’em, sock ’em fun
Much is made about embarrassments of riches. Oh my God, what to do with all this beauty, all this talent, all this fun? But what about the riches of embarrassment? What to do with all this desperation, all this shamelessness, all this cheering and these tears?
By that score, “Real Steel’’ is the most richly embarrassing movie of the year. You’re ashamed to say you laughed, that your eyes might have welled up, that if Mattel made a Dakota Goyo doll, you’d buy one and never let it leave your side. The movie uses every trick it can to pull this off, which means using us. But to paraphrase Bill Withers, I want to spread the news that if it feels this good getting used, then keep on using me until you use me up.
This is the standard boxing tale of the down-and-out and the redeemed, of a small child - that would be Dakota Goyo - and his estranged flunky father (Hugh Jackman). It’s a tale of spunk and grit but fast-forwarded to some not-too-terribly-distant future in which the public gathers to watch great big robots beat the screws out of each other in both sold-out arenas and underground venues that call to mind “Fight Club’’ and the warehouse in which Christina Aguilera shot her “Dirrty’’ video.
What a vaguely brilliant idea: Whatever year this movie calls home isn’t terribly different from 1964 when American children first got their hands on a Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots ring. Now the robots operate by remote. The biggest, baddest, and most popular one functions courtesy of the sort of elaborate control-room setup you’ve seen in movies by one of the Scott brothers. That robot’s name is Midas, he’s owned by sexy rich people with designer accents and matching clothes, people who are the opposite of this scrappy, awesome America, in which Jackman (speaking in some past-his-prime showman’s accent) stalks around in sleeveless denim shirts or no shirt all.
His character is a washed-up boxer named Charlie Kenton. Charlie robot boxes and doesn’t always win. He owes several people a lot of money and thinks nothing of selling custody of the orphaned son he didn’t know he had to the well-heeled sister (Hope Davis) of the woman whose existence he’d forgotten about. The sister and her husband would like Max to stay with Charlie while they vacation in Europe. As it happens, the kid is a major fan of robot boxing and when he discovers and names a hunk-a-junk robot - Atom - there’s no living with him. Max wants Charlie to get Atom a title shot. Atom turns out to be special, a throwback to an older vintage of robot but tricked-out with state-of-the-art features. For instance, he’s got a shadow function in which he mimics the motions - and emotions? - of whoever’s in front of him. The movie has a similar function. It mimics Stallone: “Rocky,’’ “Rocky II’’ . . . “Rocky V,’’ “Over the Top.’’ “Real Steal’’ would be too honest a title.
A lot of amusement in “Real Steel’’ is intended. For the underground fights, Anthony Mackie makes a very funny ringside hype man. The effects are effective enough for the steel to seem truly real. Some of the amusement is a byproduct of shamelessness. Jackman doing some climactic shadow-boxing is a riot. The corresponding close-ups of wet eyes (one pair belongs to Evangeline Lilly, who plays the tough mechanic bittersweet on Charlie) are funny, and the scenes of Goyo happily doing the robot with Atom made my eyes wet. The movie is corny enough to remind you that boxing rings are square.
Goyo knows this is corny, but he sells it. He’s a fun combination of Justin Bieber and little Ricky Schroder: winking attitude, winking earnestness. When he leaps into the ring, takes the mike, and talks trash, the director Shawn Levy lets him scream his taunts, like he might then break into “You Shook Me All Night Long.’’ I love the bratty way Goyo talks to Jackman, as if any word ending in “s’’ actually ends in “z.’’
By the time “Real Steel’’ is over you’re convinced that a little of Jackman’s razzle could have spawned Goyo’s dazzle, that they could destroy the world high-score in the inevitable movie of Dance Dance Revolution. But first for this spunky father-and-son shtick should be a more inevitable sequel, and the only place to take it is Will and Jaden Smith’s house.