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The catch is that Marvin has a secret from Debra too: a child-free European vacation he’s been looking forward to. The agreement these two model father figures come to is this: Charlie will keep Max until Debra and Marvin get back from their vacation, on the pretense that Charlie feels guilty about his past neglect of Max and needs some time with him before giving him up. Max will pay Charlie $50,000 up front and $50,000 on delivery. Debra will get the kid in the end, and everyone will be happy.
Of course Charlie doesn’t really plan to hang around with Max for two months. Ha ha! Of course not. He plans to foist him off on another old girlfriend, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), the daughter of Charlie’s old coach from back in the day. Bailey knows what an irresponsible bum Charlie is, but despite herself she’s still susceptible to his charming smile, and her face lights up when she tells Max how good Charlie used to be in the ring. “Dad loved you like a son,” Bailey tells Charlie, which makes you wonder what was wrong with Bailey’s father, and Bailey herself for that matter.
It goes without saying that Max will get involved in Charlie’s work with robots, and father and son will bond over the course of the movie. But can the movie redeem Charlie enough to make him a worthy father in the end? I’m not sure even the filmmakers were sure of the answer. Real Steel isn’t so much ambiguous as confused over whether Max should wind up with Charlie or Aunt Debra.
In one scene, tipping the scales away from Charlie, he’s jumped by some thugs he stiffed earlier in the film and takes a vicious beating, and even Max is roughed up. But then when Debra finally takes custody of the boy, she tries to win him over with materialism (swimming pool, hot tub, toys). By the last act, the movie seems to be trying to rehabilitate everybody.
Max is remarkably obnoxious for an 11-year-old, which I choose to blame on the screenplay and director Shawn Levy (also responsible for the Night at the Museum broken-family films) rather than Goyo. Goyo and Jackman do get a few poignant moments. When Charlie, frustrated, tells Max that he doesn’t know what the boy wants, Max shouts, “I just want you to fight for me! It’s all I’ve ever wanted!” A lot of the intended emotion of the climax hinges on Charlie’s profound reluctance to acknowledge his boxing past in any way, a reluctance the movie doesn’t really earn, although Jackman sells it anyway.
The rock-em-sock-em end of the plot—which is actually the more enjoyable bit, except for the arena culture—hinges on Charlie and Max’s efforts to take an obsolete old sparring bot named Atom to the top, eventually challenging the fearsome high-tech titan of the robot boxing world, Zeus. I won’t get bogged down in the brain-dead sci-fi, and how the movie flirts with the idea that Atom is self-aware but doesn’t go anywhere with it, etc. (That way lies madness.)
I will note that in a movie in which everyone else has an American accent or pretends to, Team Zeus consists of not one but two arrogant furriners with heavy accents (Olga Fonda’s haughty Russian ice queen and Karl Yune’s scornful Japanese technocrat). The movie goes crazy with product-placement advertising, too, even prominently hawking one product, the Xbox 720, that won’t be released for years and hasn’t even officially been announced. Now that’s thinking ahead.
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