There are two types of people in this world: those who love ROCKY III, and those who won't allow themselves to love ROCKY III. Shawn Levy's REAL STEEL is for the unrepentant philistines in the former category. It's an Amblin-esque amalgam of every sports movie cliche known to man, all fused together for maximum uplift. This movie wants you to feel sensational; it wants to drown out the fury and sorrow of the outside world for two hours with robot-smashing spectacle and father-son bonding. It is mercilessly manipulative, corny as hell and rigorously upbeat. It works because it embraces 1980s-style garishness as a virtue. This is emphatic, well-crafted hokum. It is ROCKY III.
And I ****ing love ROCKY III.
Actually, it's a lot of other movies, too: THE CHAMP, PAPER MOON, OVER THE TOP, THE IRON GIANT and ROCKY IV. But it never feels cynically packaged - which is a shock coming from Levy, director of the loud and exhausting NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM movies. It's affectionate theft: close to homage, but not quite that fancy. REAL STEEL isn't commenting on genre; it is unabashedly of its critically-maligned genre. It is also, on the fringes, a quasi-plausible work of science fiction that posits a believable future in which humans - presumably jacked up on all manner of performance enhancers - can no longer safely participate in violent sports. In this regard, the film has a little in common with its source material: Richard Matheson's short story, "Steel" (which was turned into a classic 1963 TWILIGHT ZONE episode starring Lee Marvin). Just don't expect a conclusion anywhere in the dour neighborhood of Matheson's tale; a man stepping into the ring with one of REAL STEEL's eight-foot-tall bruisers would be nothing more than a swiftly successful suicide attempt.