In a futuristic world where robot boxing is a popular sport, washed-up fighter and struggling promoter Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) hustles a living sending beat-up androids into the ring. But it's an accidental summer spent with his boxing-mad son Max that helps him return to the big time - and rediscover his own fighting spirit. Director Shawn Levy forces genuine drama from this novel twist on the Rocky formula... and the fight sequences will leave you with (metal) fatigue.
A film about boxing robots shouldn't really work at all. Especially when the robots are accompanied by a schmaltzy father/son parable, a plot shamelessly indebted to Sly Stallone's 1987 arm-wrestling romp Over The Top, and one of the worst marketing taglines of recent years: If You Get One Shot, Make It Real.
But against the odds - and much like Atom, its loveable underdog android - Real Steel actually packs an entertaining punch.
Much to its credit, the film spends little to no time explaining its outlandish premise - the concept that robots have taken over the boxing rings from human fighters is treated as a given, liberating it from tricky questions such as: why aren't more star Bots simply copied? And just how does Atom's "shadow function" work? None of this really makes sense. Just go with it.
The ever-likeable Hugh Jackman is Charlie Kenton, ex-pugilist and weary proprietor of a beat-up combatant, as well as neglectful father to Max (Dakota Goyo), with whom he gets lumbered via some complicated arrangement over the summer.
Charlie really isn't very nice to his son (he actually sells him back to his aunt before even setting eyes on him) but Jackman has that rare gift of being able to seem completely honourable even when he's behaving like a rogue.
Inevitably, the two find common ground in their shared love of boxing and robots, and slowly bond - as well, of course, as discovering their ticket to the world boxing championships in the most unlikely of places.
It is Jackman and Goyo's charisma and chemistry, helped in large part by Shawn Levy's confident pacing (like we said, there's no pause for explanations), that carries the film through, where otherwise it could have failed.
The fights are beautifully choreographed (Sugar Ray Leonard was an on-set advisor) and evenly interspersed with the drama, which, though undeniably saccharine at parts, helps make this more than just a noisy orgy of scraps and steel.
Most important of all, Real Steel's robots are fantastic to watch - and each has its own distinct features and character without ever descending into quippy, cutesy Transformers territory. Zeus is an evil-eyed menace; Atom, whom Max rescues from a scrap-heap, has something of E.T. about him (Spielberg was an executive producer here), ergonomically appealing and human-like.
Yes, we could do without the montage, and Levy could definitely have ditched the relentlessly uplifting music. This isn't Rocky by any stretch of the imagination - it's far too steeped in homage for that.
But Real Steel has the kind of joyful silliness of a film like Face/Off or Mission Impossible, coupled with a good dose of genuine heart.
So jut sit back and enjoy the fight. And wait for the inevitable Zeus and Atom merchandise to hit the shelves.