Charlie (Hugh Jackman) is a loser, a has-been boxer who never was. In Real Steel, set in the not-too-distant future of 2020, boxing has changed - robots have replaced humans in the matches, so that they can become even more violent, and Charlie is leading a hard-scrabble life of trying to get bouts for his robot at sixth-rate venues like state fairs and underground arenas.
Real Steel shouldn't be as entertaining as it is. There is a nod in the credits to a Richard Matheson story, "Steel," as being an inspiration for the film, but anyone can see from the previews that it is a live-action version of the '60s toy Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. Strangely, that ends up being a good thing. For the same reason that the old TV commercial for the toy is indelibly etched in so many of our minds, there is a bit of a nostalgic thrill whenever the robots appear in the movie. You could never get me to see a Transformers film, but my seven-year-old was able to persuade me to see Real Steel. Maybe Hugh Jackman had something to do with getting me to the theater, too.
Charlie left his girlfriend 11 years ago, relinquishing all rights to their son, Max. The mother has now died, and Charlie has made a deal with Max's aunt and her rich husband that he will watch him — just for the summer — for a fee — and then surrender custody. Real Steel borrows heavily from many classic boxing movies like Rocky and The Champ. It's also got the "boy and his dog" appeal of a film like ET (Steven Spielberg is an executive producer of Real Steel) and of course, The Iron Giant. The places where Charlie and his son Max (Dakota Goyo) take Atom to fight have a Mad Max/Thunderdome feel about them. Kids won't really get how far down through 2020's social stratas Charlie keeps descending, and how Max and Atom help him back up, step by step, but their parents and chaperones will. Real Steel keeps Charlie gritty and grimy. Its twin protagonists, Charlie and Atom, must crawl up through the mud — sometimes literally.