Contrary to the headlines of doom that accompany the release of each soul-dead sequel in the Transformers movie franchise, there is indeed hope for the future of fighting robots on the big screen. Real Steel, a jaunty, well-built hybrid action/family pic, envisions a day in a plausible near future when all- American ringside entertainment is provided by 2,000-pound, eight-foot steel automatons. They punch the rivets out of one another, maneuvered by trainers who control their fighters via ringside computer remotes, and who stand to make big money if their player can literally crush the opposition. The movie, meanwhile, demonstrates the way CGI- driven bot cinema can fruitfully coexist with father-and-son bonding cinema to create charming entertainment part warm hugs and part cold clang.
An indefatigable Hugh Jackman has a cheery, gung ho time of it as Charlie, a washed-up flesh-and-blood fighter who's now one of those itinerant bot jockeys himself. Charlie is a rolling stone, rattling around the country with a hunk of android steel in the back of his big rig, looking to make some money each night at amusement parks, at fairs, or in C-grade fights. Between gigs, he checks in at his old boxing gym, now run by his late trainer's daughter (Lost's Evangeline Lilly), a terrific babe who has all but given up waiting for Charlie to clean up his act.
The act-cleaning impetus turns out to be Max (TV-trained 12-year-old Dakota Goyo), a son Charlie never knew he had, who's a chip off the old block when it comes to hard- headedness. The kid as it happens, a rabid bot-boxing fan finagles his way onto Charlie's rig and becomes his old man's unlikely partner in the care and building of a championship contender.
Real Steel is directed by Night at the Museum's Shawn Levy, who makes good use of his specialized skill in blending people and computer-made imaginary things into one lively, emotionally satisfying story. The boxing sequences themselves, including a classic David versus Goliath finale, are tight and exciting. And the slow thaw between a sad, angry son and a reluctant father builds to a well-earned emotional climax, handled with real class and affection by Jackman and his unfazed young costar. No bots, those two. A–