October 9, 2011 -- This father-son sports drama is a lot like the original film “Rocky” except the fighters are robots and the personal dynamics of the story are a little different. This is basically a story (very loosely based on a Richard Matheson short story that he once adapted for the “Twilight Zone” TV series) about a wayward father reconnecting with his son, with some boxing scenes thrown in for good measure. The boxing robot, Atom, is basically the same character that would be inhabited by a dog in a more traditional story about fathers and sons. The off-putting aspect of this movie is that the father is not a man of good character, at least at first. He is uncaring and self-centered. He becomes a little more tolerable later in the film.
Hugh Jackman (of the “X-Men” movies) stars as Charlie Kenton, a former boxer making a marginal living as the itinerant owner of a robot fighter. One day, he is contacted by lawyers seeking his agreement for turning custody of his son, Max Kenton (played by Dakota Goyo) over to Max's aunt Debra (Hope Davis of “Synecdoche, New York”) and her husband, Marvin (James Rebhorn of “The International”). When Charlie finds out that Marvin is rich, he makes a secret deal with him to take Max off his hands for a few months so that Marvin and Debra can spend a quiet vacation overseas. In return, Charlie will get $100,000. When Max finds out he has been sold, he wants his cut, but Charlie has already spent the money on a new boxing robot. Max decides to travel with Charlie because he likes tinkering with robot boxers. When Charlie's new robot gets turned into scrap (like his previous robot) in its first big fight, Charlie is broke and the two sneak into a junk yard looking for spare parts to fix the robot. Instead, Max finds an entire robot abandoned in a deep pit and rescues it.
The robot, named Atom, was a sparing robot not intended for competitive boxing matches, but Max uses some parts from Charlie's last robot to upgrade the old robot into a fighter. The robot seems to have a spirit of its own. Charlie teaches it to box and it goes on a winning spree, earning a shot at the world title. Charlie learns something from Max and Atom and actually becomes a little bit more like a real father. Not enough like a real father to want custody of his own son, but a little less like a heel than he was earlier in the story.
The robots in the movie are very impressive and the fight scenes are well done. The problem with the movie is that Charlie is such a despicable character it is hard to warm to him, even when he becomes a little bit nicer later in the movie. Max is so adult-like and self-sufficient he seems to need little from his father. He seems to get more emotional support from the robot, Atom, than from any of the film's human characters. Charlie's girlfriend, Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly of the “Lost” TV series) has an awkward role in the film of being devoted to Charlie even though he seems to be using her and giving little in return. It seems like these three characters could have had a lot more interesting relationship than what is shown in this film. The best bad guy in the movie is a fight promoter with a cowboy-like persona, Ricky (Kevin Durand of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”). He sets up a fight between a fighting robot and a rodeo bull.
The film does work the old underdog fight formula pretty well, as did “Rocky.” The fights are well-staged and the drama builds with each fight. It works well enough to make light entertainment. While most of the characters are not very appealing, young Dakota Goyo really carries the day. He is quite the little spark plug and he keeps this film afloat when none of the other characters seem to be worth watching. This film rates a C+.
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