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September 1, 2014, 5:29 pm

‘Real Steel’ is a fun robot ride

Awesome! If you’re captivated by the trailer for “Real Steel,” the action packed feature film, open in theaters today, definitely lives up to the hype. This tricked out version of Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots will keep the family fully engaged for two fantasy-filled hours.

In this futuristic film directed by Shawn Levy, Tony Award winner Hugh Jackman stars as Charlie Kenton, a washed up boxer who has managed to stay close to the sport through the world of robot boxing. Now on the underground “bot” boxing circuit, Charlie, who quite frankly, is a jerk, takes his pathetic mechanical man from one venue to the next, winning just enough cash to keep his “tour” going.

Charlie has visions of hitting the big league — World Robot Boxing (WRB), but at the moment his bot is at an anonymous state fair, about to face a very mean bull (yes, bull) named Black Thunder. Shortly after his bot literally gets stomped back into scrap metal by Black Thunder, two men approach Charlie and give him some bad news. His baby mama, Caroline, has passed away, and he is being asked to take custody of his 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), whom Charlie has not seen since he was born.    

A deadbeat dad who is not interested in being shackled to a surly pre-teen, Charlie shows up at the custody hearing expecting to hand the kid off to Caroline’s sister, Debra (Hope Davis) and her filthy rich husband. However, the hearing takes an unexpected turn, and Charlie agrees to keep Max for the summer. Father and son are reunited, and needless to say, their initial meeting does not go well.

Conflicted, Max is filled with resentment toward his father, but still wants to get to know him. Charlie, however, tries to leave the boy with Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly), a robotics and electronics wizard who always manages to piece together Charlie’s mechanical monstrosities long enough for them to fight another day. Immediately drawn to Max, Bailey encourages Charlie to take the boy on the circuit so they can spend some time together.

Once on the road, father and son hit the robot graveyard to find spare parts for Charlie’s busted up bot. While exploring, Max falls into a seemingly bottomless crevasse and is saved from certain death when his jacket gets caught on a piece of metal. Closer inspection reveals that the boy’s life was saved by an abandoned, severely undersized bot lodged in the mud and debris. Charlie thinks the robot is a piece of junk, but Max, excited over having his very own robot, promptly names it Atom.       

Max cleans up Atom and takes him to Bailey for an overhaul, and before long the little robot is up and running. Charlie begins to take notice and they soon discover that Atom has some very special characteristics. While most of the gargantuan gladiators in the ring are operated by a hand-held controller or an elaborate computer system, Atom, a sparring robot, can be voice activated and is equipped with a “shadow” mechanism which allows him mimic human movements. If Max jabs, Atom jabs. It Charlie throw a right cross, so does Atom. Cool! With the small but mighty robot now at full power, the headstrong Charlie and his equally stubborn son hit the grimy underground circuit to try their luck.   

The versatile Jackman, who is clearly having a blast in this role, trained with Sugar Ray Leonard, who also did the fight choreography for the film, and is very convincing as an ex-boxer showing Atom how to handle himself in the ring. He also has an intriguing chemistry with Dakota Goyo, who’s a prototypical Disney Kid — a precocious little moppet with expressive eyes and a strong will. Though their relationship is contentious, they are bound by their competitive spirit as they navigate the underground circuit in hopes of a big time bout in the WRB.

Anthony Mackie, who usually appears in serious films like “The Hurt Locker,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Night Catches Us,” is somewhat of a bot boxing ringmaster as the street smart bookie Finn. My only criticism of this film is that it did not make full use of Mackie’s considerable talent, and his role could have been fleshed out a bit more.     

The special effects and the fight scenes, which are brilliant throughout, are particularly spectacular when the scene shifts to the dazzling WRB, kind of a WWE on steroids. The league is populated with murderous mega machines named Twin Cities, Noisy Boy and Zeus, and while the bouts are violent, it’s kind of like watching a gigantic video game.

As with any good fight film, “Real Steel” culminates in an epic battle between good and evil — in this case Atom, the “People’s Champ,” vs. the WRB Champ, the vicious “killing machine,” Zeus. Who will prevail?

I’ve heard that some of my colleagues feel that the premise of the flick is “nauseating,” and panned the multi-talented Jackman’s performance, which “they” say is not up to his usual Tony-winning standard. Apparently they have forgotten one of the most basic principles in reviewing films: the “willing suspension of disbelief.” Now, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and, no, the script isn’t perfect, but loosen up people! They’re robots!

Even if robots aren’t really your thing, you’ll be spellbound by the engaging story, over-the-top special effects and non-stop action of “Real Steel,” a fun family escape in the Disney tradition. (PG-13)