On weapons as pets, '80s throwbacks, bad casting, and A-X-L's strange combination of the good and the not-good-enough
A-X-L Global Road Entertainment
Director: Oliver Daly
Screenplay: Oliver Daly
Starring: Alex Neustaedter, Becky G, Thomas Jane, Alex MacNicoll, Dominic Rains, Lou Taylor Pucci and Ted McGinley
Rated PG / 1 hour, 38 minutes / 2.39:1
August 24, 2018
(out of four)
A-X-L is a better leading cast and 30 percent more ambition away from being a good movie. That's not exactly a compliment, but it's not exactly not one, either. The movie gets close enough that it made me wonder why greater resources hadn't been poured into it - and lament that it didn't challenge itself just a little bit more.
The film's listed or otherwise reported budget of $10 million is somewhat dubious; I've seen the number primarily in reference to Global Road's expenditure specifically, but two additional production companies were involved in financing as well. Even if the budget was somewhere north of $10M, it's still likely on the lower end of the wide-release spectrum. Especially by that standard, the film's special effects are remarkable. And we're not just talking about a few flourishes here and there. There's a lot of effects work - in particular the title character, an artificially intelligent, militarily weaponized robot dog (the initials stand for Attack / Exploration / Logistics). In addition to the CGI required to bring him to life and various other visual effects, the movie features some reasonably well-executed action and stunt choreography. I've seen many bigger movies spend much more money on far inferior work. That A-X-L's technical efforts are so impressive makes it a rather confounding summer afterthought. Lots of high-quality production value went into a movie that the studio ultimately decided wasn't worth the hassle to promote.
Perhaps the strange middle ground the film occupies is to blame for the lack of attention. This is sort of an old-fashioned teen adventure - an earnest '80s flick that doesn't call attention to any sense of retro nostalgia - that plays out exactly as we expect it to, step by step. It dutifully executes the formula without pushing it in any particular direction. There's a baseline competence to Oliver Daly's filmmaking that he fails to put to good use simply because his conceptual approach is too timid. A kid befriends an advanced military weapon, the weapon's creators eventually want their invention back. There's a girl, there's a bully, there's a stern but supportive dad. But somewhere along the way it's the technological angle itself - which is to say, the intersection of the dog's intended purpose and the more moral identity imbued by his new owner - that gets lost in the shuffle. The military contractors - and the military itself, and the mercenaries commissioned to retrieve its property at any cost - are no more potent than any other faceless antagonist would be. Why make a movie about a landmark technological breakthrough if said technology's only purpose is to get a pair of teenagers out of a few scrapes? Why make a movie about a weapon if you have nothing to say about violence or morality? Why make a movie about a sinister, top-secret military operation if neither the operation nor the military is ultimately of any relevance?
What Daly gives us is basically a more innocent, less ambitious version of Chappie.
The casting doesn't do him any favors. While the background is filled in with reliables like Thomas Jane and Lou Taylor Pucci, the leads are an unfortunate pairing of Alex Neustaedter (who's like what would happen if a default video-game avatar was modeled after Friday Night Lights-era Taylor Kitsch) and Becky G, whose acting abilities have not improved since last year's Power Rangers. Neustaedter plays Miles, an amateur motocross racer who spends his spare time working in his father's auto-body shop. He and Dad (Jane) can't afford the best equipment - or sometimes even replacement parts - and Miles hasn't been able to attract a sponsor. But his talent is clear - so clear that his much more well-to-do rival Sam (Alex MacNiccol) befriends him for the sole purpose of orchestrating an act of sabotage, the disastrous results captured on camera, to destroy his online reputation.
Turns out to be something of a blessing in disguise, because it's in the nearby junkyard where his would-be friends left him that he discovers A-X-L and "pairs" with him, giving him full control of the robot's protocols and behavior. Eventually Sara - who hangs around the motocross community and is kinda-sorta-maybe going out with Sam, but not really - gets involved. Miles pairs with her, too. (Get it??) But before they've even fully gotten the hang of this whole having-a-robot-dog-for-a-pet thing, they've got mercs on their asses (armed with tracking capabilities) (the mercs, not Miles and Sara's asses), and Sam and his minions aren't making things any easier. They show up to cause trouble because that's what otherwise useless bully characters in movies do.
There's some really nice compositional work during a sequence in which A-X-L is in slow pursuit of Sam - first at a gas station, later at a bonfire party on the outskirts of town. It plays out essentially as a slasher-movie in reverse, with our heroically vengeful dog framed in the background - just out of anyone's line of sight, calm but ready to pounce - as our unassuming teen villains hang around in blissful ignorance in the foreground.
I suppose there's no particular reason to ever choose A-X-L over any of the far superior movies in the same vein. But it remains something of an endearing curiosity. It's a technically sound, sincere attempt to make an adventurous Spielbergian throwback. It just only gets halfway there.