The robot has the heart and the human has to learn to feel again in this unabashedly cheesy but irresistible fairy tale about a father, a son, and robots who bash the heck out of each other in a boxing ring.
Charlie (Hugh Jackman) was a boxer until human boxing was abandoned some time in the near future. Now enormous rock ’em sock ’em robots get in a ring and fight to total mechanical destruction. It is like something between trial by combat, a computer game, a cockfight, and a demolition derby. Now Charlie drives around from one skeezy venue to another, promoting whatever bucket of bolts he can get to stand up and throw a punch. When his robot loses a match because Charlie was distracted by a pretty blond, he loses everything. He actually loses more than everything because he bet more than he had.
He gets an opportunity to try again when a former girlfriend dies and he is left with their son Max (Dakota Goyo), with whom he has had no relationship. The boy’s wealthy aunt on his mother’s side (Hope Davis) wants to adopt him. Charlie agrees to sign over the boy in exchange for enough money to buy a new robot. It means keeping Max for the summer, so the aunt’s husband can take the child-free vacation trip he has been planning. Charlie planned to dump Max on another old girlfriend, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly of “Lost”), the daughter of the man who trained him as a boxer. But Max insists on going along and when the robot Charlie bought with the money he got is destroyed, Max finds an old sparring robot in the junkyard. He was never intended to be a boxer. He was not designed to throw punches, just to take them. But he has a “shadow” function that enables him to learn moves by imitating a human. And Charlie is the human who knows how to hook, jab, and uppercut.
Two things work surprisingly well in this movie. The first is the robots, magnificently designed and brilliantly executed. Real-life boxing champ Sugar Ray Leonard provided the boxing moves and gave each one of them a distinct style and personality in their approach to fighting. They are outrageously fun to watch. The second is the storyline. Part “The Champ” (made twice, both among the greatest sports weepies of all time) and part (of course) “Rocky,” the script is co-written by Dan Gilroy (the stunning fantasy “The Fall” and the uneven but intriguing and provocative “Freejack”). It may be cheesy but it embraces the cheese with enthusiasm and awareness. Jackman and Goyo bring a lot to their roles as well. We might lose interest in Charlie but Jackman makes us see that he is wounded, not selfish. And Goyo has just the right mix of determination and faith to show us that he has the best of Charlie in him and to show that to Charlie as well.
Parents should know that this is a movie about boxing robots and there are some brutal machine fights. There is also some human violence with brief graphic injuries, and issues of parental abandonment and neglect.
Family discussion: What made Atom special? Why did Max believe in him? How did he change the way Charlie felt about himself and about Max?
If you like this, try: “Transformers”