You guys, in the future Rock’em Sock’em Robots are intense. In the latest CGI opus from director Shawn Levy (Date Night), the year is 2027, when blood-and-guts boxing has been replaced by the more brutal sport of robot boxing.
Now trainers use remote controls to send eight-foot, 2,000-pound robots into the ring for nuts-and-bolts mayhem that doesn’t end until one of the bots is vivisected.
Think of it as the Roman arena for the iPod age.
Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) is used to taking his punches. Once a low-level boxer, Charlie was in the generation of fighters replaced by robots. Now he tours state fairs and sleazy underground rings, running a beat-up bot and looking for quick cash.
He even allows his bot to fight a live bull in a sequence that was supposed to be fun but made me want to call PETA. In a light film, this opening sequence is a giant misstep that made me recoil in horror.
It won’t surprise you to learn that these antics don’t make Charlie father-of-the-year material. Yet when a former girlfriend dies, Charlie gets custody of 11-year-old Max (Dakota Goyo: Thor) through a fluke in Texas state laws.
Charlie could care less about the boy, but he sees a way to make a quick buck: His former flame has a sister who married money. The only way Charlie will sign over the boy to Aunt Debra (Hope Davis: Mildred Pierce) is if her husband gives him $50,000 — the cost of a new bot. Moneybags agrees, but only if Charlie is willing to babysit the kid thru the summer while the couple vacations.
Unsurprisingly, Charlie and his ego manage to destroy his new bot and alienate his son in one night.
Fortunately, Max has a better business head than his dad plus his own obsession with robot boxing. When the pair venture into an illegal scrap yard looking for robot parts, Max discovers a first-generation sparring bot. The bucket of bolts is small, banged up and outdated, but it also has a rare program feature: shadowing, which means he can copy the exact movements of a person and remember them.
Charlie thinks it’s a waste of time, but Max cleans up the bot — now named Atom, works on his circuitry and wins his first fight. When Charlie sees the earning potential, he takes an interest. With Charlie teaching his son and Atom the finer points of human boxing, the pile of scrap becomes the Little Bot that Could.
Father and son soon bond as they parlay their scrappy fighter from underground fights to a championship bout against notorious bot-killer Zeus.
Jackman and Goyo’s winning chemistry elevate this nuts-and-bolts Rocky story into a sweet tale of one man’s atonement. Jackman isn’t afraid to show all the warts on Charlie, making his conversion to decent man enjoyable and inspiring. He commits especially to the boxing scenes, swinging wildly in the air as he coaches his giant prodigy. Even Atom turns in a good performance. With kind blue LED eyes and a sense of comic mimicry, he’s the bolted version of Buster Keaton.
If robot boxing doesn’t become a real sport in the next decade, I’ll be shocked. The fights are brutal and gritty — helped by Sugar Ray Leonard’s choreography — but no one gets hurt in all the mayhem. Levy’s masterful sequences of the electronic carnage left the audience at my screening cheering for more. I’d sign up for season tickets.