MAX STEEL

Producer: Bill O'Dowd and Julia Pistor
Director: Stewart Hendler
Writer: Christopher Yost
Stars: Ben Winchell, Josh Brener, Maria Bello, Andy Garcia, Ana Villafane, Mike Doyle, Phillip DeVona and Billy Slaughter
Studio: Open Road Films

D-

Synergy is still a hot thing, so it’s hardly surprising that Mattel should try to make hay with a movie based on its action figure toy line—centering on a teen who melds with a little alien creature to form an Iron-Man style superhero, itself a synergistic enterprise—in much the same way that Hasbro did with their Transformer figurines. But the undernourished “Max Steel” hasn’t a prayer of attracting more than a tiny fraction of the audience that Michael Bay’s extravagant “Transformers” franchise did.

Actually Mattel has done spin-offs of their Max Steel toys before. There were two TV series, the most recent in 2013, and a number of feature-length offshoots that apparently never made it to this country, as well as some comic books and the inevitable video games. But this picture is getting a US theatrical release, presumably in the hope of generating enough attention to spawn a sequel. Unfortunately it’s about on the level of a pilot for another cable TV series featuring the character—one that would never get picked up.

In any event, this is basically just an origins episode that tweaks earlier versions only slightly. Teen Max McGrath (Ben Winchell) returns with his mother Molly (Maria Bello) to the town where he was born—and his father Jim (Mike Doyle) was killed in an industrial accident sixteen years earlier. Soon after his arrival he begins emitting streams of liquid energy from his hands. That peculiar circumstance occurs simultaneously with the emergence of an alien called Steel (voiced by Josh Brener)—it looks like a ball with one glowing eye and a couple of protruding slats for wings—from suspended animation in a glowing tank at his father’s derelict factory. Steel quickly contacts Max and informs him that he’s his protector, who will consume the energy the boy is producing before it makes him explode. He also warns Max that they will have to meld in order to fight huge alien villains, capable of producing tornados like the one that attendee his father’s death.

There are a couple of other wrinkles—the appearance of Jim’s erstwhile partner Dr. Miles Edward (Andy Garcia), who’s built a research company designed to continue McGrath’s cutting-edge scientific investigations, and an incipient romance Max develops with a pretty, spunky classmate named Sofia (Ana Villafane).

What follows is pretty much a jumble, but Max and Steel eventually join into the composite hero, who must contend with one of those tornado-spouting aliens and, even more importantly, a human in league with them. The identity won’t be revealed here, but a glance at the cast list will undoubtedly be enough to disclose it to the two or three of you out there who might still be interested in seeing the movie.

“Max Steel” is crammed with CGI effects, most of them mediocre, though the Steel gizmo itself is fairly well rendered. The Max Steel suit, however, looks like something resurrected from some laughable nineties fiasco (maybe “Guyver”), and when it does battle with a similarly-clad villain in the final reel, the shots of the humans’ faces inside the costumes come across like a bad rip-off from the “Iron-Man” template. Acting is pretty much inconsequential in this sort of fare, but Winchell (and his stand-ins) are put through the wringer, action-wise, and Villafane strikes the proper poses. Bello and Garcia mostly make one regret that they’re compelled to take roles like this to keep their bank accounts in reasonable shape. As for Brener, his screechy delivery of Steel’s supposed witticisms is enough to set your teeth on edge.

If this movie is any indication, Mattel has probably drained all the profit the company can from poor Max Steel. Even bored adolescent boys are unlikely to muster any enthusiasm for this chintzy reboot of the hybrid hero.