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edge staff writer


‘A.X.L.’ a real junkyard dog

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Summer blockbuster season is coming to a close. With Labor Day right around the corner, the cinematic cycle is set to begin anew. As per usual, late August is littered with oddball offerings – some good, some bad.

Take “A.X.L.” This is a movie that you very well may not have even heard of before this very minute. Basically, it’s about a young man who finds and befriends a robot dog.

Yeah. That’s what I said too.

It’s a throwback effort, an attempt to capture the spirit of some of the kid-oriented sci-fi action flicks of generations past. Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly successful effort. It’s a lazy and occasionally condescending film, the kind of movie that – despite some not-terrible CGI and a semi-sincere sentimentality - even the target audience will find to be a little unsophisticated.

A super-secret scientific group is working on a project for the government. For reasons that are never adequately explained, they’ve decided to create a robot dog that can operate in multiple capacities on the battlefield. Unsurprisingly, the team – led by shady science guy Andric (Dominic Rains, TV’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) – is behind schedule.

But it gets worse when the prototype – named A.X.L. (which stands for Attack, eXploration, Logistics because they’re as bad at acronyms as they are at science) – escapes into the desert.

Meanwhile, Miles (Alex Neustaedter, TV’s “Colony”) is an aspiring dirt bike racer struggling to climb the ladder. He’s talented, but his team consists solely of him and his dad Chuck (Thomas Jane, “1922”) and he can’t compete with the bigger teams. The biggest is Team Fontaine, whose arrogant lead rider Sam (Alex MacNicoll, “California No”) is driven by his even more arrogant father (Ted McGinley, “Area of Conflict”).

Oh, and there’s a girl – there’s always a girl – named Sara (Becky G, “Power Rangers”), whose family works for the Fontaines and who is the object of Sam’s affection even though she’s not interested.

Anyway, Miles winds up out in the desert alone and stumbles upon A.X.L. The two immediately bond, because that’s how it goes in this sort of movie. But it’s only when the pair connect that the secret science guys are able to locate A.X.L. For reasons that defy understanding, Andric and his crew decide to just watch how it all plays out in an effort to … advance their research? I guess? Again, none of this makes a ton of sense.

Anyway, Sara finds out about A.X.L. because of course she does. And then Sam and his crew find out about A.X.L. because of course they do. And the government starts coming for the robot dog, but Miles believes that A.X.L. is more than a weapon and decides to do whatever it takes to protect his new friend from those who would do him harm … or use him to harm others.

Suffice it to say, you won’t be surprised by how it all plays out.

“A.X.L.” feels like a straight-to-streaming movie. Or maybe a SyFy original. It certainly doesn’t bring enough to the table to warrant a wide theatrical release. And yet … here we are. Maybe it’s an ill-conceived attempt at counterprogramming. Maybe the studio simply didn’t want to wait for the January dumping ground to release it. Who the hell knows why people do what they do?

Writer-director Oliver Daly makes his feature debut here – he landed the gig thanks to his proof-of-concept short “Miles.” You wouldn’t expect this kind of movie to be an auteur-type project, but one could argue that “A.X.L.” is the “Citizen Kane” of robot dog movies.

The cast lands somewhere just south of adequate. Neustaedter is bland and lacking in affect; he’s as uninteresting a lead as you’re likely to find. Becky G is equally uninspiring, offering little in the way of presence. Neither one of them appears capable of emoting and there’s an abject lack of chemistry. Thomas Jane spends the entire movie looking like someone wondering where it all went wrong and considering firing his agent. Rains stares at computer screens. MacNicoll is basically a photocopy of an ‘80s movie teen bully.

Honestly, the most interesting performance in the entire movie is given by the robot dog. Considering the overall quality of the film and the low-by-Hollywood-standards $10 million budget, the level reached by the CGI is actually kind of impressive. It’s far from enough to save the film, however.

“A.X.L.” is a sloppy, derivative outing, devoid of originality and uninterested in making any real effort. There’s a rote quality to the proceedings, a paint-by-numbers vibe that feels formulaic at every turn. The performances range from disinterested to actively terrible, while the narrative borders on the nonsensical.

It might be the dog days of summer, but “A.X.L.” is definitely barking up the wrong tree.

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