The boy-and-his-dog film has a long and venerable history, even including a recent one that stretches all the way back to the beginning, “Alpha.” And the formula has been tweaked to allow for other than canine critters, too, with “E.T.” really establishing the template in that respect for the last three decades. So there’s ample precedent for a picture like Oliver Daly’s “A.X.L,” which might be called a young-jerk-and-his-robot-killer-dog movie. But when all is said and done, you’re left with the nagging question: why didn’t they just re-release “Monster Truck” instead?
The human hero this time around is Miles (Alex Neustaedter, who even looks like Lucas Till), a teen who’s into motocross racing, helped by his dad (Thomas Jane); he explains that it’s the only thing he doesn’t “suck at.” When he wins a race against rich man’s son Sam Fontaine (Alex MacNicoll)—with an assist from Sara (Becky G), the daughter of the Fontaine family estate manager (Patricia de Leon)—Sam feigns friendship, only to leave him stranded in the middle of nowhere after messing with his bike and having his sidekick (Lou Taylor Pucci) film the inevitable crash and post it on the web.
It’s there that Miles, traipsing back to civilization alone, encounters A.X.L., which has escaped from the lab of Andric (Dominic Rains), the mad scientist who’s fashioning the contraption as a next-generation “war dog” for the DOD. The robot is injured in its initial chase of motocross Miles—it seems it’s not all that great a prototype—but the boy fixes it up and, as with Androcles and the lion, they become fast friends. And of course, Sara joins with them in a threesome.
Needless to say, their friendship will be tested. On the one hand, Sam will learn of A.X.L. and try to destroy the robot, which survives—again saved by Miles—and then goes after the guy and his crew of partying sycophants. In this plotline A.X.L., which after all stands for Attack, Exploration, Logistics (okay, the acronym doesn’t quite work, but Andric is a computer wizard, not a wordsmith), is not a very nice doggie at all; but then a rotter like Sam deserves bad treatment.
Then there’s Andric, who’s desperate to recover his creation (and has an army of electrified drones and SWAT-type humans to effect it), but also sees an opportunity to get some valuable data by allowing A.X.L. and Miles to bond and taking them both in at precisely the right moment. In the end the scientist proves no more perfect than his robot, however, and must resort to the use of force that, in the end, will prove his undoing.
Acting is of no importance in this kind of picture, but it’s a fair guess that it will be of no benefit to Neustaedter’s modest résumé, and on the evidence of this movie and “Power Rangers,” Becky G might be well advised to concentrate on her music career. MacNicoll, who looks a bit like a sneering version of Lucas Hedges, is unremarkable, and Rains shows no sign that he could ever rival Claude. Jane, who once seemed poised to have a major career, wisely stays as much as possible in the background. Technical credits are okay, but nothing special; the CGI rending of A.X.L. is adequate, but not much better than what one would expect to see on kids’ cable TV.
“A.X.L.” is, one supposes, aimed at kids, but it’s actually too dark and nasty to be appealing family fare. One certainly can’t imagine any young boy asking for a toy model of this creepy-looking metal mutt for his birthday, and parents might wonder about the message sent by the scene in which the robot hacks into a gas pump to get free fuel, and gets an ATM to spit out loads of cash, which the youngsters happily take. At the same time, it’s too lacking in action and spectacular effects to attract the jaded adolescent crowd. There’s simply no obvious audience out there for this mangy mongrel. Amazingly, “A.X.L.” ends with intimations of a planned sequel; it’s safe to predict that will not happen.