Real Steel is a film that I wanted to see, but slipped through the cracks this past Fall. I generally like Sci-Fi and Boxing movies, and I find Hugh Jackman in really engaging presence. The film has all three, and there were generally good reviews from critics I respect, so I thought it was worth a chance.
So, often, and maybe this is copping out on my part, I approach films like this mainly wanting to see if the tropes are executed well. When a film is pretty up front about what it is, and I think Real Steel is VERY up-front about it, saying "it's silly" is a non-criticism. It's a movie about robots boxing. There's more than a few silly bits, and it operates on broad emotional levels. That's by design, and if you don't like that sort of thing, stay away.
It's like when you watch a play or film which is clearly and unapologetically melodramatic (which certainly applies here, as well). If the cast or director apologizes for, or seems embarrassed by, that for even a second, the project is doomed. You have to play it full-out, and with total conviction. Otherwise, you're giving the audience license to dismiss your story, because you already have.
The effects are, well, effective, with a mix of CGI and real, on-set anamatronics. Director Shawn Levy handles everything with a lot of grace and style. The robot fights, for example, put the Transformers movies to shame. Mainly because Levy pulls back enough so that the fights don't just become machinery slamming into each other. There's a strong sense of tactics, and, even, more important, a feeling that actual damage is being done (Sugar Ray Leonard was a consultant on the film, and I believe did some motion capture work - it shows). The film never strays very far into making the 'bots more than tools, but you get a strong sense of exactly how much damage these things take.
Atom, our star fighting robot, is a bit of wonderful design work, nowhere near as anthropomorphized as some of the other robots we see, but the featureless face allows us to project many emotions. It's the same sort of response I've seen in neutral mask acting exercises. While the film doesn't really go there, there are a few quiet scenes where you wonder what might be going on behind those glowing, blue eyes.
I'm not going to sit here and make a case for Real Steel as a "great" movie, but I will make a case for it as a very entertaining one. It's sweet-natured, exciting, and well-executed family film.You could do much, much worse on a rental.
I do have to say, when we see Charlie's (Jackman) first fighting 'bot, early in the film, it bears such a striking resemblance to a Rock-Em, Sock-Em Robot, I had to laugh. Yeah, the film could've been a movie version of the game, and maybe at some point, it was, but who cares. I had a good time with it.