In Hugh Jackman’s latest bout of small-minded big budget balderdash, Real Steel, boxing is used as an emotional magnet to connect a father — played by the Boy from Oz himself — with his estranged young son, played by wide-eyed lil’ tyke Dakota Goyo.

The sport draws ’em together, gives ’em common ground, shared aspirations and Quality Bonding Time. Their triumphs and tribs are decorated by the sport movie genre’s staple fist-in-the-air conventions: training sequences, a championship to look forward to, a titanic never-been-beaten carry-over to topple, a nefarious win-at-all-costs enemy manager, an unexpected last minute hurdle to overcome, etcetera.

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There’s a gimmicky but important difference between Real Steel and other boxing flicks. Director Shawn Levy (Date Night, Night at the Museum) presents a PG-rated answer, if you like, to Bob Dylan’s rhetoric 60’s polemic Who Killed Davey Moore?, a song that searches for blame after a boxer dies in the ring. Was it his own fault? His competitor’s? His manager’s? The crowd’s? During some live performances audiences cheered when Dylan’s twang moved onto a fleeting reference to Cuba, “where boxin’ ain’t allowed no more.”

Real Steel doesn’t have blood, or slabs of punched-in skin, or even sprays of spittle. No flesh gets pounded. No bodies hit the ground. No humans get hurt in the ring. In fact, they never even enter it. Advanced robots do the fighting and humans control them from the sidelines. It’s a nifty video game-esque premise with obvious appeal for the Wii/X-Box/Playstation generation.

Trouble is, Levy and his screenwriters can’t decide how the robots are controlled. The characters initially use a large, cumbersome remote device, similar to the kind one would use to operate a sophisticated toy helicopter. They move to a method in which the robots mimic their actions, precisely as a shadow projected on a white wall. Finally, they resort to simply shouting at the ‘bots, hollering at them to “swing left,” “raise your arms,” “get up” a yada yada.

The action scenes have zero intensity because none of the blows have impact; with steel contraptions fighting each other, there is never a sense of danger and little chance to whip up an “everything on the line” dramatic moment.

But the action scenes, competently handled and largely unexciting, are probably the best bits. The father/son dynamic at the heart of the story is as blank and nondescript as the plain, expressionless face of the characters’ favourite robot, who remains throughout the running time an embodiment of the film’s emotional emptiness.

Real Steel’s Australian theatrical release date: October 6, 2011.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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