Steve Ouellette

From the outside, "Real Steel" looks like Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots on steroids, and a curious career move for Hugh Jackman.

On the inside, however, "Real Steel" is a crowd-pleasing fight movie that — unlike, say, a "Transformers" movie — has actual heart, and some soul.

Yes, the metal-crunching CGI robots are pretty cool, too.

Think of "Real Steel" as sort of a 21st century "Rocky," except that Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed are sitting behind the wheels of Humvees and crashing them repeatedly into each other.

The film is set in a near future, where human boxing has died off and been replaced by battles between giant metal beasts.

Jackman's Charlie Kenton is an obsolete former fighter now trying to eke out a living operating dented robots one small step away from the junkyard.

Charlie is cocky, self-centered and desperate, living a lonely life on the fringe. Then tossed into his world — in time-honored movie tradition — comes 11-year-old Max, the son he's never acknowledged.

Max's mom has died, leaving him to the unprepared and wholly unwilling Charlie — but Charlie sees an opportunity. He shakes down Max's rich relatives for new robot money, agreeing to keep the unhappy tween for the summer before turning over custody.

It's a blatantly manufactured setup — in a film that leans heavily on cliche — but it works. The uneasy relationship between the unlikable Charlie and the nearly too cute Max propels the story and lifts "Real Steel" above its special effects.

Max, it turns out, is a giant robot boxing fan and knows his way around a toolbox. He and Charlie join forces, rescue a broken bot off a scrap heap and start to work their way up the fight ladder.

What romance the film has comes between Charlie and long-suffering, but gorgeous, gym owner Bailey (Evangeline Lilly of "Lost"), but the only relationship that matters is between Charlie and Max. Goyo's Max seems too smart to be real (he could be an android), but he and Jackman have some nice father-son moments — both happy and angry.

Jackman plays his part to the hilt. You know he's going to find redemption in the end, but it's fun to watch him get there.

"Real Steel" pulls plenty of obvious strings, and though its fight scenes are invigorating, the spilling of antifreeze doesn't quite compare dramatically to pools of blood. It never, however, fails to entertain.

Still wondering, though, who would win a fight between a giant robot and Jackman's Wolverine ...

Rental Recommendation: "The Iron Giant" would, like, totally dominate robot boxing. Grade: A-

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