This film is not based on Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. Now that we got that out of the way, we can find out what this film is really about. One could claim though that this film is based on a dozen previous boxing movies such as ROCKY and THE CHAMP.
Set in a future where robots have replaced humans in the boxing ring because people like the carnage more. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE) is a former boxer who has become involved in the low-rung world of robot boxing. He gets a shock one day when he discovers that the mother of his son Max (Dakota Goyo, THOR) has died and that he needs to work out who will take the child. The 11-year-old's aunt Debra (Hope Davis, AMERICAN SPLENDOR) wants to take him and Charlie sees her rich husband as a chance to make some money out of the situation.
As part of his deal with Max's uncle, Charlie will take the kid for the summer. Having used the money to buy an older champion robot named Noisy Boy, Charlie wants to quickly get out on the road again. So he tries to dump the boy off on Bailey (Evangeline Lilly, TV's LOST), the daughter of his former trainer. But Max maneuvers his way into tagging along. Up to this point the film goes through the paces of so many other films. Charlie is a rash, skuzzy know-it-all, while Max knows all the right moves to make.
However, once the training bot Atom is introduced the film improves. The old generation robot isn't meant to compete, but Max has faith that he can take on all contenders. It's not surprising that Charlie and Max bond over the training of the bot. But I'll tell you it works. The reason it works is because it's not maudlin and is presented from the point of view of Max, whose enthusiasm toward the robot-boxing world starts to rub off on the viewer. Young Goyo might look a lot like PHANTOM MENACE's Jake Lloyd, but that's all the comparisons you can make. Despite the fact that this is a PG-13 movie, it's appeal will hit boys Max's age like a swift uppercut.
Adults who know all the movies the film is pieced together from will be less engaged. The script lifts key moments from ROCKY, which do not work in context. The robots being in the ring and the humans controlling them from the outside lessens the jeopardy and the intimacy of the underdog underpinning. Atom is Max's robot and I never saw him as an underdog. I never really saw Charlie that way either. He's more of an impulsive type, not a lovable loser. The problem is you can't just weld random pieces together and think you have a champion on your hands.
Additionally, many characters don't have the investment in the story as they should. Lilly's Bailey is a forced love interest. It would have been better if her dead father were in the film; he would have meant more. And I never bought the subplot about her trying to keep the gym open. It seems Charlie is the only member, so I think she has bigger problems than him not pay his rent. There isn't a powerful bad guy either. The fair grounds boxing promoter Ricky (Kevin Durand, TV's LOST) is wicked and is the catalyst for an important plot turn, but he isn't involved in the climax at all. The owners of the undefeated bot Zeus — Tak Mashido (Karl Yune, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA) and Farra Lemkova (Olga Fonda, LITTLE FOCKERS) — are walking clichés and have no real antagonism with Charlie or Max, even though the little kid tries to start something.
Like I said once Atom gets in the ring, the film started to grab my attention. Director Shawn Levy (NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM) and writer John Gatins (HARDBALL) do a nice job of setting up the fights to maximize tension. The fights for the most part deliver strongly on the promise of epic robot on robot violence. But then the film lets you go with some stupid moves. When the film needs to soar, it just limps to a finish. On the way home, kids might be jazzed up to play the REAL STEEL videogame. Their parents will be wondering if that Rock 'Em Sock 'Em set is still at grandma's house. At least with that you never know when the head is going to pop off the robot. In the film it's completely telegraphed.