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When I was growing up there was a toy game called Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. It had two robots, a red one and a blue one, in a boxing ring being controlled by the managers who moved the robots around and pushed buttons to throw punches. When one punch landed in the right place on the opposing robot's head, it sprang up with a funny noise and that robot's manager would yell "You knocked by block off!" Well, at least they yelled in the commercials of old! Watching Real Steel immediately brought me back to that time in the past only for a moment because the movie had good enough execution that I was immediately brought back into the now to watch the near future of robotics and boxing.
Max Kenton (Dakato Goyo) was abandoned by Charlie when the boy was born. Now the boy's wealthy aunt wants to adopt him and Charlie sees a way to alleviate some of his money problems. Charlie works a deal to in essence sell his rights to Max in order to purchase a new fighting robot. The catch is that Charlie has to take Max for the summer. Estranged father and son forced together for several months. Yeah, at this point, you know how part of the movie will end, the question is what road will the two travel to get there.
Charlie and Max head to the gym where Charlie was trained to pick up the new robot. The gym is now operated by the trainers daughter Bailey (Evangeline Lily) since her dad had passed away. Luckily for Charlie, not only does she know how to run the gym, she knows how to fix the big pieces of sporting metal. While Charlie attempts to leave Max with Bailey, Max won't have that. The kid manages to finagle his way into going to his first robot boxing match while sparring verbally with his dad about what they're doing. The kid has some spunk about it. Now understanding how his new robot will react is bad news for both the robot, Noisy Boy, and Charlie.
Quite frankly, if it wasn't for the character of Max and the way that Goyo played him, you wouldn't have a movie here. It’s Goyo who really carries the film. For an 11 year old Max displays knowledge beyond his years, insight into boxing and betting, and a lot of chutzpah to act the way that he does towards his father and people in the World Robot Boxing league. After Noisy Boy is destroyed in the ring, Max and Charlie break into a junk yard. Buried in the mud Max finds an old sparring robot named Atom. Without Charlie’s digging assistance, Max manages to extricate the robot out of the junk heap and back to Bailey who helps repair Atom. At times Goyo delivers the fierce determination and belief in Atom and what the bot can do and yet at times gives these sad, large Puss-in-Boot eyes when he shows vulnerability in that he wants a relationship with his dad or when he is betrayed when Charlie’s selfish streaks come to the surface.
In a true Rocky style, Atom slowly rises in the boxing community’s awareness drawing the attention of the owners of the top ranked fighting bot Zeus. Max in his exuberance of youth throws down the gauntlet taunting them. Eventually the big fight happens and I’ll let you watch the movie to see what happens from there. I’ll just say that it wasn’t a cookie cutter ending.
The movie ran for 127 minutes and had my attention the whole time. For the first show of the day, the theater was pretty packed and even though it was rated PG-13 for some violence, intense action and brief language, there were a fair number of young kids in the audience. While the robots got smashed to pieces, the worst thing that happened to a human was a fat lip and bloody nose. The movie had the action of a sports movie, but that was secondary to the father son story of Charlie and Max. Also watching these gigantic robots battle was fun and fascinating. At times real robots were used for some of the close up shots with humans while the boxing scenes were done with the motion capture to depict what a real fight was like. Enough adjustments were made to the styling of the movements to make it believable that mechanical men were swinging and pounding each other instead of flesh and blood.
I predict that the movie will do well over the weekend (update, it came in first with more than double the money that came in for the number 2 movie at the box office) and that a series of sequels based on both Charlie and Max and the robot fighting world in general will be in our near future.
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