There are moments in Real Steel where I forgot I'd already seen enough movies about fighting robots, forgot I was too old to be the target audience, forgot that I think Hugh Jackman is turning smarmier with every passing film, forgot that overly expressive child actors set my teeth on edge, forgot to think about all the other underdog/boxing/father-son movies this one is ripping off.
In those moments, watching hydraulic fluid spill from a "wounded" boxing robot, my already half-destroyed hearing further wrecked by the soundtrack's extreme noise, I remembered how cool it was to play Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots and how much fun silly movies like this can be. The biggest problem with Real Steel is that there just aren't enough of those moments. For a big, brawling, robot-boxing action movie, it spends a crazy amount of time trying to make you care about whether or not obnoxious Hugh Jackman and his equally irritating, estranged son (Dakota Goyo), will bond as a family once again. They do, by the way. But if you've ever seen a movie before then you already knew that. So it's kind of like what would happen if any of the Transformers movies ever tried to convince you that Shia LaBeouf's personal well-being was meant to be more important to you than the quality of your concession stand nachos.
Jackman plays a down-on-his-luck former boxer who's out of work. See, it's the future and boxing's been given over to robots in order to satisfy the audience's lust for violence. And in the future, according to this movie, that entire human audience has turned into the kind of tattooed, nose-pierced, leather vest-wearing, pink-mohawk-sporting, cartoon punk rock goons you might see on an Escape From New York-themed episode of Blossom. So that's something we all have to look forward to, no more regular clothes or haircuts, just extreme wallet chains and robot boxing mania.
Another thing about the future is that people will speak only in shouted slogans like "I GOT THIS!" and "DEAL WITH IT!" and "BRING THE PAIN!" and "LET'S DO THIS!" Meanwhile, everybody will consume ridiculous amounts of Budweiser and Dr. Pepper and children will spend a lot of time teaching their personal robot boxers to perform dance numbers. There are worse futures to contemplate. At least it's not going to turn into Children of Men out there.
Are you confused about this film's priorities yet? Well, so is the film when it's not smashing metal un-characters all over the screen (and to its credit, they made some of these machines out of actual metal instead of digital pixels). But if you're looking for clarity or anything beyond robot fights or people yelling at each other about robot fights, then you bought a ticket to the wrong movie.
And in the end, the only thing that really matters is that the filmmakers were market-savvy enough to frame Atom -- the junkyard bot adopted by Goyo's character -- as a puppyish, adorably scrappy, Iron Giant-style affection machine and, more importantly, to pair him with Goyo and allow them both to run roughshod over Jackman. Kid movies like this stand or fall with kid audiences on the strength and power of their kid characters, especially when that kid is puffing up his chest to every on-screen grown-up and winning the attitude contest. This mostly terrible movie lets the kid win every time. So it wins, too.