Global Road Entertainment has not had a good run. What was once a somewhat respectable studio under the name Open Road that released the occasional great movie based on real people and events (“Snowden”, “Marshall”, and the Best Picture winning “Spotlight”) has had more than its share of major duds in fiction bringing us derivative and forgettable train wrecks like “The Nut Job”, “The Promise” and “Sleepless”. Since becoming Global Road Entertainment they’ve had three consecutive flops in 2018, “Midnight Sun”, “Show Dogs”, and “Hotel Artemis”, none of which I took the time to review. However their latest film, “A-X-L”, I did take the time to see and it doesn’t exactly help the studio much. But does that mean “A-X’L” is unwatchable? Can a movie that borrows so many ideas from so many other sources have anything redeemable to make it worth the time? Well let’s find out. This is my review of Global Road Entertainment’s latest offering, “A-X-L”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
Based on a short film, “A-X-L” focuses on a teenager named Miles Hill (Alex Neustaedter), an aspiring motocross rider on a budget who works with his father Chuck (Thomas Jane) to try and make something of himself on the race track. After winning an event over heavily sponsored Sam Fontaine (Alex MacNicoll) Miles is invited to join Sam’s posse in hopes of connecting with potential sponsors. However Miles shows interest in Sara Reyes (Becky G) an aspiring artist who works as “the help” at Sam’s family compound and serves as Sam’s love interest as well. Sam sets Miles up to be pranked, leaving him stranded in the middle of nowhere with just his bike and some gas where Miles comes in contact with A-X-L (Attack, Exploration, Logistics), a robotic canine prototype created to be the next battlefield sidekick for the soldiers of the future. Miles bonds with A-X-L as the robot’s creator Andric (Dominic Rains) watches from afar hoping the relationship will allow A-X-L to develop more quickly. However, when Miles inadvertently becomes A-X-L’s paired owner the two become entangled in a larger conspiracy and Miles must do whatever he can to protect his new robotic friend from becoming the machine of war he was designed to be.
Alright so full disclosure, “A-X-L” is not very good and it all starts with the wooden performances that make up the extremely cliché cast of characters. A running theme in this review will be just how out of date this whole experience feels. There are a few select positives to be sure, but in terms of the acting it’s all pretty basic. The star, Alex Neustaedter, plays the perfect 90s-esque teenager. You know the kind. The outcast who wouldn’t really be an outcast. The good-looking guy who thinks the pretty girl is out of their league because reasons who finds an unlikely friend that helps with his confidence. There’s literally nothing new or unique about his character. Like many aspects of this film pick your cliché and chances are he embodies some part of it. The only thing he’s not is a rebel without a cause. That right goes to Alex MacNicoll’s character Sam Fontaine who swaps personalities and perspectives so many times in this film it’s hard to get a read on him and while in better films this would signal a complex character here it just feels lazy and frustrating. One moment he’s talking to Miles about how he’s not really into racing anymore and hopes Miles will succeed him. He even offers to help Miles when his father refuses to assist the competition. Then out of nowhere, seemingly because of jealousy, he goes full on psychotic and even leaves Miles stranded with potential bodily injury. It’s like the filmmakers wanted to create characters that would fit every stereotype you’d find in a cheesy Disney Channel original but with minimal casting.
The same goes for the villain Andric, played by Dominic Rains, who is extremely under developed and about as generic a family friendly bad guy as you can get. There are hints at a more developed character in his story arc as he could have easily been the creator with a heart but we never learn why he found passion in creating A-X-L except for the money. The movie never delves into his emotional attachment to the technology he created and basically just makes him a generic antagonist to create conflict for the heroes. There’s nothing remotely unique about him at all making him one of the most forgettable villains of 2018 to date.
Becky G’s Sara Reyes, the main female role, is a bit more complex but not nearly enough to save this film in any way. Becky gives a decent, if bland, performance as a surprisingly strong female companion who has her own developed backstory and talent and even comes to Miles’ rescue a few times. In the end though she’s not nearly developed or significant enough to escape the “token female sidekick” trope that was clearly utilized during the story writing. Becky G isn’t a horrible actress. I actually enjoyed her in 2017’s “Power Rangers”. But she’s also nothing truly special either, at least from what we’ve seen so far. It’s clear this role was an attempt to help her jump start a hopeful future in film and it does show a bit of her range but, again, not enough to really make her anything more than your typical pre-teen film lead. That’s kind of the idea for every character in this film really and could be used to define the movie as a whole. It’s all been done before and it’s not really a welcome sight to see it all done again. I’ll dive a little more into what I mean by that later on but as far as the acting is concerned “A-X-L” brings nothing new, special, or really impressive to the forefront. The actors aren’t necessarily phoning it in but considering the bland material they are given and their inability to help it rise above its derivative feel they deserve criticism all the same.
The most impressive aspect of “A-X-L” is A-X-L himself. The mechanical pooch is brought to life through actually pretty neat looking CGI and physical models. Considering this movie was made for only a reported $10 million to see these visual effects come to the big screen was very cool. A-X-L does have great personality and in some ways is actually more developed, emotive, and even human than the real people who play a part in his story. “A-X-L’s” design is pretty neat and seems functional for the job he is made to accomplish. The actors, to their credit, also do a decent job acting as if A-X-L is really there or actually a real thing. There’s little separation between what’s real and what’s computer generated which adds to what charm this movie does offer. A-X-L truly steals the show, appropriately enough since it’s HIS movie, and considering this metal pooch was the main draw of the project to begin with that’s one win for the filmmakers that feels solid and well earned.
Really the only other compliment I can give “A-X-L” is that while it may be derivative and cliché…at least it’s not boring. I’ll be honest I barely looked at my watch the entire movie even though the story was so familiar. Maybe that’s because I’m a 90s kid and in some ways this movie took me back to the glorious cliches that littered the films of my childhood. Maybe it’s because A-X-L himself was so charming. I like to believe that “A-X-L” was engaging as a side effect of hitting all the most basic must-haves for a family friendly adventure. In an odd way the fact that it is so familiar makes it an easy viewing experience and one that, if you’re willing to look past its flaws, offers exactly what you’re probably expecting if you went out to see this film. There were quite a few kids in the audience when I went to see it and they all seemed to enjoy it. So while it doesn’t really try anything new “A-X-L” does perfectly emulate the emotional subtext of superior movies which, whether earned or unearned, makes it an easy film to get lost in for an hour and a half without necessarily feeling like you wasted your time.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
When you get right down to it, and this should be no surprise considering my comments so far, “A-X-L” is nothing we haven’t seen before and really offers nothing to help it stand out. The entire film brought me back to the familier tropes that almost every movie of it’s kind utilized in the 90s and if this movie was released in that era maybe it would have been a bit more respected. But overall “A-X-L” often feels far too familiar or extremely out of touch. It borrows tired ideas from MANY far superior movies making it feel extremely uninspired. Its generic plot is made all the more noticeable thanks to its dependence on out-of-date fads…I mean when’s the last time motocross was a cool thing to put in a movie? It’s not the worst thing that’s ever come out of Global Road Entertainment, but it continues to show the studio’s unfortunate dependence on lazily written projects that pander to the lowest common denominator. It’s only the latest in a long line of imitative projects that fails to find its own identity at any point in the story.
Aside from the cliché writing the direction isn’t all that good either which isn’t a surprise considering Oliver Daly both directed AND wrote the project. The lack of imagination in the writing bleeds into the filmmaking itself as it takes forever the get to the point and bring A-X-L front and center. Almost the entire first act actually goes without a single appearance by the pooch. The pacing doesn’t exactly smooth out either and there are so many elements of the story that don’t make any sense and feel extremely forced. I mean Alex MacNicoll’s character uses a damn flamethrower that’s shoehorned into the story because, I guess it’s cool? Then there’s the creators of A-X-L who just sit and watch as their runaway creation bonds with a young man seemingly because they had issues with helping the robot develop. How does this help them in any way if the dog won’t obey them and the people he was designed to obey? What did you think would happen when you let a semi-sentient robotic dog made to obey its partner loose on the world? Did you think the kid was just going to play ball? God there’s so many questions about the stupidity of the villains it makes my head spin. The whole experience requires way too much extension of disbelief. While it was watchable “A-X-L” was incredibly frustrating in hindsight. Overall, it’s a movie that feels beyond its time, uninspired and unoriginal, and lacks any aspects that would otherwise allow it to stand out as anything more than the most generic of cash grab family films especially for a 2018 crowd.
“A-X-L” is one of those film made to play it safe. Its most attractive aspects are the pretty well-designed CGI dog that gives it its name and the film’s ability to capture the same emotionally driven concepts that much better films perfected long before this adventure was even conceptualized. That there is the reality of this film…if you want to see it and experience its story you can do so with far superior movies like “The Iron Giant” from the comfort of your home. It is engaging in its own way, but let’s face it the only reason it’s watchable is because the story feels safe, familiar and comfortably cliché. “A-X-L” doesn’t even try to be anything more than what it needs to be and to its credit that prevents it from being a COMPLETE failure. However, it was touted as a film that would explore the relationship and boundaries between man and technology and it doesn’t pay off in almost any way in that respect. I’m not disappointed I saw it. Because of its cliché nature and its similarities to 90s cash grabs I actually found it to be fun and charming as a nice walk down memory lane. But nostalgia does not make for a great film all on its own. There needs to be substance and something unique to help the movie stand out and “A-X-L” just does not have that going for it at all. If you have kids take them to see it. It’s not unwatchable and I’m sure they will enjoy it. But it’s extremely predictable and only adds to Global Road Entertainment’s growing list of misfires in 2018.