Published Oct 06, 2011Okay, go ahead and make those Rock'Em Sock'Em Robots: the Movie jokes now. However, while Night at the Museum director Shawn Levy's first attempt at dramatic filmmaking is more successful than that damning concession suggests, it might as well have been based on the '80s toy property for all it reflects the Richard Matheson short story it's based "in part" on.
Basically, it's still about a washed-up boxer turned robot operator, after bouts between large humanoid battle bots become the nation's favourite sporting event. They're a bigger spectacle, with more carnage and less finesse ― the same can be said for this futuristically enhanced telling of the triumphant underdog tale.
Structurally and emotionally, it feels like a mash-up of Stallone's Rocky, and Over the Top (you know, the cheesy arm wrestling one?), with a superficial dash of The Iron Giant thrown in, finished with a shiny, safe Disney veneer.
Hugh Jackman delivers a typically solid performance as Charlie Kenton, a gruff, shifty absentee father up to his soon to be boxed ears in gambling debts, who takes on son Max for the summer in order to milk cash out of the kid's rich uncle-in-law, who wants a private vacation with his wife (an underused Hope Davis) before they take full custody.
Predictably, Max is precocious and headstrong, with a love of robot boxing to match his father's. During a raid on a recycling centre for scrap parts following another in a string of Charlie's ill-considered bets, Max finds an old robot type that has a rare movement shadowing function. All the major plot points are telegraphed ― anyone with more than a passing familiarity with sports movies will be able to see every beat coming, including an inevitable awkward hip-hop dancing robot scene.
To his credit, young Dakota Goyo (Thor, Defendor) is a heck of a little actor, fuelling Max with piss and fire. Elsewhere on the acting front, Kevin Durand once again demonstrates his insistence on never playing similar characters. Sure, he's the villainous sort (a scumbag rural carnival promoter and former boxing rival to Charlie), but every movement, facial expression and facet of his speech pattern are miles away from Keamy in Lost or the gill-faced evil alien in I Am Number Four.
Speaking of Lost alumni, Evangeline Lilly draws the short straw as the tomboy mechanic love interest, relegated to distant spectator for much of the film. The evolution of her relationship with Charlie is one of the many frustrating leaps in simple logic that are either the result of sloppy editing or scripting. Bogging down an already lengthy two hours are a number of pointless transition shots that attempt to give a sense of motion to a picture that mostly takes place in the ring or the gym.
Most disappointing is Danny Elfman's uncharacteristically ham-fisted score. It starts as humble, good 'ole boy rural folk then swiftly builds to nauseatingly melodramatic histrionics, practically scraping and begging for an emotional response.
If you're comfortable with stacked clichés, it's possible to get caught up in the exhilaration of the visceral robo fights and the palpable excitement of Charlie and Max as they bond while rising through the ranks. However, seasoned viewers with a low syrup tolerance will find far too much to groan over. (Walt Disney)