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  A-X-L Devoted dog or mechanical menace?
Year: 2018
Director: Oliver Daly
Stars: Alex Neustadtaedter, Becky G, Alex MacNicoll, Dominic Rains, Thomas Jane, Lou Taylor Pucci, Patricia De Leon, Niko Guardado, Marie-Francoise Theodore, Ted McGinley, Madeleine Bertani, Andrew Ortenberg, Hassie Harrison, Magdalene Vick, Sam Upton
Genre: Science Fiction, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  4 (from 1 vote)
Review: Upon escaping its creators at a top secret military research unit A-X-L the robot dog, whose initials stand for Attack, eXploration (see what they did there?) and Logistics, finds shelter with Miles Hill (Alex Neustadtaedter), a brooding biker torn between his dream of becoming a motor-cross champion and dad Chuck's (Thomas Jane) hope he will go to college. Aided by sexy Sara Reyes (Becky G), Miles endeavours to hide A-X-L from those looking to do them harm, including his wealthy rival and local bully Sam Fontaine (Alex MacNicoll). But the military are hot on their trail.

From Doctor Who's K-9 to Hanna-Barbera's Dyno-Mutt, robot dogs have a near universal appeal in pop culture, combining our fascination with technology with our enduring affection for canine companions. With A-X-L writer-director Oliver Daly also lifts a theme or two from The Iron Giant (1999). As in that cult animated film here an artificial intelligence seeks to prove itself more than a military weapon by means of its bond with a young hero. It is a concept with a lot of potential the film sadly squanders.

Adapted on Daly's own Kickstarter-funded 2014 short, A-X-L certainly looks great for a mid-budget straight-to-streaming family film. Cinematographer Tim Orr, who shoots most of David Gordon Green's films, ensures the dynamic motor-cross and off-roading sequences have a vivid sports documentary feel that lends verisimilitude to an otherwise goofy premise. A-X-L itself, a cool blend of practical effects with sparse but effective computer graphics, is a slick design. Reminiscent of the 'edgy' realism of Patrick Tatopoulos' designs for Transformers (2007), minus their alienating amorphous qualities. On the surface A-X-L seems out to be a teenage Fast and the Furious, foregrounding loud bangs, absurd stunts and hot chicks. However, to its credit, Daly's screenplay tries to forge a thematic connection between the robot dog’s drive to transcend its role as killer hardware with Miles' slow realization he has more to offer beyond bike racing or face planting in the dirt. The film also tries to make a point about the military using abuse as a tool to manufacture its killing machines. Yet while these ideas are certainly there the meandering narrative never lets them blossom. The plot stays stubbornly locked in first gear, unsure where to take the relationship between robot dog and frankly robotic teen hero Miles beyond picturesque slow-mo stunts and the most obvious, box-ticking, underdog-made-good story tropes.

Not helping matters are the characters that, while capably played, prove painfully generic. Lead Alex Neustadtaedter never once breaks his veneer of laconic cool, rendering Miles even more of an enigma than A-X-L. It is interesting to note though that, like Megan Fox in Transformers, singer Becky G's heroine might seem like she was set up as mere eye-candy but actually emerges the smarter, more faceted and intuitive character. More often than not she bails Miles and A-X-L out of a tight spot with some quick-thinking. In fact Sarah's back-story is so interesting (she and her mom are live-in housemaids for antagonist Sam, which leads to some fascinating class/racial/romantic tension) one wonders why the filmmakers did not go the Hailee Steinfeld in Bumblebee (2018) route and make her the lead. Ultimately the film's ambiguous, semi-melancholy ending suggests aspirations beyond empty spectacle. Yet it wastes most of its run-time on the sloppiest of clichés.

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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