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|Cinema Signal: A balmy concept with a lot of exaggeration, perhaps, but the craft behind it is a knockout.|
Take a cranky kid, a boxing ring washout, a gorgeous gym owner, and squeeze them into someone's idea of the future... a time when rodeos are the same as we've always known them but massive robots have replaced boxers in the ring. Which gives you a yarn that's a bad-dad sports movie and a vehicle for Hugh Jackman.
Which left Charlie, a natural-born huckster, with no options but to become a rogue promoter. With no investment capital, the first thing he's got to promote is a fighter 'bot, then get it some fights on the illegal circuit. Unfortunately, all he can muster are has-been machines and hybrids put together from parts at the scrapyards. The resulting paste-up units merit little more than down-card fights and barely pay the entrance fees, let alone the rest of the bills. That is, if they last a round.
Fortunately, Charlie is also a saleman with more confidence than brains and he has a tendency to go into debt by overestimating and overselling his 'bots. This also threatens his relationship with sultry beauty Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly, "The Hurt Locker"), a prize knockout in any ring and the daughter of the man who trained Charlie in the very gym she now owns, and runs, the Tallet Gym.
There's one more wrinkle in Charlie's life, which he hasn't had to think about for some time. He's a father, and when his ex-wife dies, his 11-year old son Max (Dakota Goyo, "Thor" as young Thor) temporarily goes to his mother's sister Debra (Hope Davis) who, with her rich husband Marvin, can offer a far better life for Max than close-to washed-up dad ever could. But until the court can assign guardianship, the boy lands on Charlie's doorstep (after a negotiation with hubby Marvin that nets him a hundred grand to take the boy while aunty and uncle take a 3-month cruise). The brat turns out to be full of antagonism toward the father who pretty much abandoned him his whole life.
After squandering Marvin's payment, Charlie swings a loan from his friend Finn (Anthony Mackie, also from "The Hurt Locker"), in order to buy flashy mechanical pugilist, Noisy Boy. He proceeds to enter him against Finn's boy, the nasty Midas. Again, his iron man gets pulverized and Charlie is back to square one, only with a big debt and no prospect to pay it off, while Finn is making moves on him for payback.
Saddled with a very annoying, charmless, constantly challenging kid who is always on him for all his failures, the turnaround moment comes during a scene in which Charlie saves Max from certain death and Max discovers a buried generation-2 'bot with programmed abilities to shadow the movements of a human and to learn (sort of). After a lot of repair work, Max names it Atom.
Charlie thinks Max (which name may be a nod to "Mad Max") is crazy to think he's found a contender but when he sees what this old 'bot is capable of, wheels start turning and he's soon in a partnership with his kid and luscious Bailey to maybe make a comeback. He gets down to teaching Atom some moves, while Max 'bot-whispers to his new acquisition and Bailey lends her considerable contributions to readying Atom for his revived career. What follows is a true revival of an underestimated steel fighter.
The biggest challenge of them all comes at the beginning of the last act when Charlie is in a position to promote a fight with the most gargantuan 'bot champion of them all, the great, the mighty, the undefeated Zeus. Holy moly, can we even hope for a rousing, sport movie ending? Think rope-a-dope.
The steel is as real as it gets in this well-produced fantasy world and shows up best in the ring choreography. Director Shaun Levy must be a fight fan because he hired none less than Sugar Ray Leonard to consult on the ring action between the machines and you can detect his influence.
Clash time between the oversized goons is nigh overwhelming in this never-before-seen context, and that's the film's bigest payoff. The bashing action is NOT disappointing and boxing fans will recognize (and, I think, appreciate) an attempt to convey action and strategy familiar to the fight fan who won't want to miss this, down to the effects of endurance in the later rounds.
The quite buff Jackman is credible as a retired fighter who knows his sport well enough to train an electronic counterpart. Lilly, of course, scores a physical punch on all counts for the fanboys among us, which makes a mechanical story line mmmmm... pleasant to watch.
~~ Jules Brenner
YouTube Video of this review.