A BLAND AND FORGETTABLE FILM
The old saying “a dog is a man’s best friend” is a phrase that everyone has heard of, playing up the assumption of how the canine species (in all its variant breeds) have a special intangible bond with humans. The characteristics of loyal, kindness, protective, and intelligence are such traits that are commonly linked to dogs and the relationships they share with their owners. Given this special and emotional bond between humans and animals, Hollywood has utilized this “dog is man’s best friend” mantra in a plethora in both the small screen (TV shows) like Lassie and The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, (as well as Rin Tin Tin: K-9 Cop) as well as feature films like 1974’s Benji, 1993’s Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, 2008’s Marley & Me, 2009’s Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, 2017’s A Dog’s Purpose, and (most recently) 2018’s Dog Days. Now, Lake Shore Entertainment, Globe Road Entertainment, and director Oliver Daly presents the newest film to feature the relationship between man and dog with the movie A-X-L. Does this film find its cinematic human / canine bond or does the movie’s bites off more than it can chew?
Aspiring to be a motocross champ, Miles Hill (Alex Neustaedter) is a wayward teen, whose dreams are just out of reach, dealing with broken down equipment and bashing egos from hopeful champ Sam Fontaine (Alex MacNicoll). While his mechanic father, Chuck (Thomas Jane), supports his son motocross dreams, he hopes for a collegiate future for him, trying to push Miles towards a more secure life. When Sam pulls a prank that’s meant to humiliate Miles (leaving him out in the desert), the willful young man accidentally runs into A-X-L (Attack, Exploration, and Logistics), a highly advanced military grade robotic dog who’s hiding in an abandoned junkyard nearby. On verge of self-destruction itself, A-X-L quickly recognizes benevolence from Miles, accepting repairs and companionship from the motocross rider, while additional help coming from Sara Reyes (Becky G), another youth teenager whose life is also caught in Sam’s world. While Miles and Sara bond with the robotic canine, exploring / discovering all the things that A-X-L can do (as well as finding a romantic connection between them), the dog’s creators, Andric (Dominic Rains), Randall (Lou Taylor Pucci), and the goon operatives at Craine Systems want their invention back, monitoring Miles’s special connection to A-X-L.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Naturally, the expression that I used above (i.e. a dog is man’s best friend) has always been something for me as I’ve always had a canine companion in life…since I was in the 3rd grade. So yes…I know of the special bond that dog and its owner have with each other. Speaking of which, much like what I said in the opening paragraph, Hollywood hasn’t shied away from touching on that subject of dogs, usually touching bond classic ideas and scenarios as well as some “based on true life” tales to bring their cinematic stories of dogs to life. Of course, I do remember watching Lassie a few times growing up (so my childhood memories filled with Rough Collie dog) as well the TV show Frasier, which did frequently feature a Parson Russell Terrier dog named “Eddie” on the show and the show Wishbone, which featured a Jack Russell Terrier as the primary character. For films, 1995’s animated movie Lady and the Tramp was a great one for me as well as Homeward Bound, Marley & Me, and Megan Leavey were some other great standout ones for me. In short, whether dramatized versions or simple real life, the stories of humans and dogs are the stuff of tender love and emotional bond of connection.
Of course, this brings me back to talking about the movie A-X-L, a 2018 film about a wayward teen who finds a super high-tech robotic dog. To be honest, I really didn’t hear much about this movie (via the internet) and didn’t hear any “buzz” about this pretty much…anywhere. The only thing I remember seeing about this movie was the film’s trailer. I saw it a couple of times when I went my local theater during my weekly “movie outings” and I thought it was pretty “meh”. I mean…judging from the trailer….it didn’t look bad, but neither did it look really good. Kind of reminded me of 2017’s Monster Trucks (i.e. a teenager who finds a mysterious being and the government is after them) and that particular movie wasn’t exactly the greatest. Still, I went to the movies to see, with the common mindset that I usually go with…hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. So, what did I think of it? Well, much like what I thought of, A-X-L wasn’t exactly the absolute worst, but it wasn’t the best and I was disappointed with the film. It was just a very adequate mediocre endeavor, but more towards the lower spectrum.
A-X-L is directed by Oliver Daly, who makes his directorial debut (of a theatrical film) with this movie. What’s most interesting about Daly is that this is sort of a passion project for him. What do I mean? Well, in 2015, Daly released a short film titled Miles (check it out…it’s on YouTube), which is a 5-minute short film that is pretty much the basic setup / premise of the A-X-L, using the characters and the concept. So, it seems that Daly has come “full circle”, bringing his 2015 short film to life with 2018’s A-X-L, a feature length film on that same short film. To his credit, he does do a decent job in making the jump from short film to theatrical motion picture, crafting a very interesting tale that shares some familiar themes (i.e. money isn’t everything or the moral ethics and judgement of self-aware machines, or the military application of today’s world, etc.). This, of course, leads into talking about the true star / scene stealer of the movie, which is A-X-L himself. To be honest, he was really the only character that I (myself) really cared for throughout the film…more so than any characters (be major or minor). Thus, while the movie isn’t truly grand and may be overlooked, at least Daly and his filmmaking succeed in making A-X-L find its emotional heart in robotic canine and the bond he shares with Miles.
In terms of presentation, A.X.L. delivers an adequate endeavor. Yes, the movie doesn’t have a huge production budget (roughly $10 million), so Daly (and his production team) can’t afford big lavishing set pieces and expansive locales. Thus, the movie has to keep restraint on what it spends its “money” on when it comes to craft a feature length film. Thankfully, I believe that the movie uses its monetary budget smartly, with a lot of small scale sets and locations in which to tell the narrative story. So, while the sets are mostly set outdoors (and in large open / junkyard areas), I do have to comment on how the movie doesn’t overspend and the efforts by Suzuki Ingerslev (production designer), Brandon O’Connor (art direction), and Ron Franco (set decorations) are commendable. Even the film’s score, which was composed by Ian Hultquist, while nothing superbly great, gives a decent musical backdrop layer. Additionally, the film’s effects in bringing A.X.L. (the robotic dog) in both practical and CG visuals are pretty good. Of course, the movie doesn’t break the bank in creating the artificial enhance animal to realistic ways, but its enough to make us (the viewer) feel something believable about this creature and how he looks and feels on-screen.
Unfortunately, A-X-L does falter under its own premise and is far cry from what it truly wants to be (or what it really could’ve been). Perhaps the one reason for this is the fact the movie’s narrative story / plot is utterly derivate and purely vanilla. What do I mean? Well, while the movie is based on Daly’s short film, Daly also pulls “double duty” for the feature by penning the film’s script. The problem? Well, Daly’s script lacks both substance and dramatic poise for such a motion picture endeavor….and it clearly shows that throughout the entire film (from onset to conclusion). The story is riddled with huge gapping plot chunks that keep the narrative from reach its full potential. To be honest, Daly’s script only scratches the surface on the ideas and plot points that the A-X-L’s story has to offer, which makes what plays out in the movie feel extremely clunky and entire derivate, with many scenarios and scenes playing out before, but from better movies. It also doesn’t help that Daly’s script produces some terribly / cliché dialogue lines throughout, making almost every line in the movie laughable…almost wooden, especially when coming from the actors and actresses in the movie (more on that below). Basically, Daly’s story has the potential for a classic kid’s adventure story (and a good one at that), but squanders at hope with a hodgepodge of ideas, a bland script, missing plot fragments, wooden dialogue.
Another reason is the fact that A-X-L lacks a sort of “pizzazz”. What do I mean? Well, the movie isn’t really that well-rounded in its execution and its clearly visible throughout the feature. While the film’s narrative script lacks depth and substance, the actual movie fails to spark a sort of cinematic quality. Yes, the robotic dog (in visually terms) is the movie’s “bread and butter” and justly so, but the rest of the movie seems very subpar. There’s not much visual flair, not much “spunk”, and not a whole lot excitement throughout the movie, which doesn’t help the entertainment value of the feature. There’s a story there, but its not executed well enough nor deep enough and thus the actually overall execution of the movie lacks finesse and something moviemaking creativity / imagination. I do understand that a film has to work with the confines of a very small budget, but that doesn’t mean that the movie can’t be thrilling or exciting. Daly’s direction might have directed the original 2015 short, but he lacks the scope of translating that short into a theatrical film. There’s just nothing much that’s really extraordinary nor visually riveting that movie makes, beside the essentially feeling for a semi-sentient robotic dog…and that’s pretty much it. To be honest, A-X-L feels like a large TV movie and not really a feature length motion picture for a theatrical run. It kind of reminded me of watching a slightly more expensive Disney Channel original movie (i.e. Camp Rock, Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, Cadet Kelly, The Cheetah Girls, etc.). In short, A-X-L lacks the scope of motion picture and should’ve been released on the small screen rather than on the big screen. Or maybe Daly should’ve just been as a consultant on the project rather than being hired as both director and writer
Adding to that is the film’s cast, which do little to elevate the film’s characters beyond their initial setup. Some of their acting talents are okay in the movie, but do little to bring their respective characters to life beyond their cookie cutter onset personas. Leading the charge as the film’s main protagonist character is actor Alex Neustaedter, who plays Miles Hill. Known for his roles in Colony, Ithaca, and Walking Out, Neustaedter does an okay job in the role as Miles. He gets the character done (a wayward teen who befriends a mysterious creature) as it’s really nothing uncommon or unconventional for a kid’s feature to tackle. However, Neustaedter seems wooden for most of the film and doesn’t really come into his own as Miles. Thus, the character is pretty boring, despite him being the main character. His interaction with A-X-L is the only time when he (as an actor) comes alive and the on-screen relationship with him and the dog (be practical effects or CGI rendering) is where he shines. Beyond that, Neustaedter only gives a fairly adequate performance as Miles and could’ve been easily played by someone else.
Behind him is singer actress Becky G, who plays Sara Reyes, a fellow teenager who catches the eye of Miles. Known for her film roles in Gnome Alone, House of Sin, and Power Rangers, Becky G is okay in her role as Sara. Her acting ability is fine and she easily slides into playing Sara, but there’s really nothing much to her beyond her initial setup. Again, no depth and nothing “grand” about her beyond her just being the love interest for the main character. Speaking of love interest, the on-screen chemistry between her and Neustaedter is extremely feigned and weak, which makes their characters teen romance of Miles and Sara very clunky and almost shoehorned / forced.
In more supporting roles are A-X-L’s two scientist creators (Andric and Randall), who are played by actors Dominic Rains (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and Flashforward) and Lou Taylor Pucci (Thumbsucker and Southland Tales) respectfully. While both their acting talents are not called into question, the characters for both Andric and Randall just comes off as goofy, cliché, and almost cartoon “twirling” baddies. I know that A-X-L is suppose to be a kid’s movie (or at least aimed at their youth demographic target), but these two characters, while performed okay-ish, makes some really illogical and stupid decisions as they watch (and let play out) their creation (i.e. A-X-L) interact with a human teenager (Miles). The situations where the negate their problems in order to perform their research (and enhance A-X-L’s human interaction) is utterly baffling and quite frankly dangerous, which makes their character shady and almost hallow (i.e. being the unethical baddies and nothing more). However, the absolute worst character in the entire film would have to be the character of Sam Fontaine, who is played by actor Alex MacNicoll (Transparent and 13 Reasons Why). Why is he worst. Well, it’s a combination of both bad acting (on MacNicoll’s part) and the character just being super annoying. I literally wanted to punch the character in the face. Not just because of him being so annoying, but because MacNicoll was doing such a terrible in job in project that character. Plus, the character of Sam is stupid and such a cookie cutter role as the inherit and empowered “boob” of the feature.
While MacNicoll’s Sam is the absolute worst, perhaps the only real actor who does actually shine in the movie is actor Thomas Jane, known for his roles Deep Blue Sea, The Expanse, and Hung, who plays Miles father Chuck Hill. While he’s more of a supporting character in the movie, Jane’s performance is probably the strongest one of the entire cast and that’s saying something about them. Jane’s Chuck doesn’t get much screen-time, which (again) is another problem as there seems to be missing character build information surround his relationship of his character (Chuck) and his son (Miles). Thus, character of Chuck is a bit superfluous, despite Jane giving the best performance in the movie.
The rest of the cast, including Patricia de Leon (Bad Ass and All In) as Sara mother Joanna Reyes, actor Ted McGinley (Married with Children and Revenge of the Nerds) as Sam father Mr. Fontaine, actress Hassie Harrison (Southbound and The Iron Orchard) as fellow teen Kristen, and actress Marie-Francoise Theodore (90 Minutes of the Fever and 5 Minutes) as Captain Webber. Much like the rest of the main and supporting ones, these characters are mostly “filler” or “background” characters that do little to the movie itself than just to progress story plot points forward. Their acting isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just these characters forgettable (i.e. throwaway roles) are more smaller cogs in A-X-L’s narrative and not much else.
Motocross hopeful Miles Hill gets the surprise of his life when he discovers (and befriends) a highly advanced / military robotic dog in the movie A-X-L. Director Oliver Daly’s latest film sees his 2015 “proof-of-concept” short film come to life in a full-length theatrical motion picture, showcasing the fully extent of what he originally planned a cinematic narrative to be. Unfortunately, beyond its emotional core of a boy and his dog and some sleek designs for how A-X-L looks, the majority of the film is completely derivate and bland, ranging from story that lacks depth (and substance), laughable / wooden dialogue, a mostly mixed bag of characters (and acting), and devoid of a lot of “spunk” and “pizazz” throughout the movie. To me, this movie was disappointing. Of course, I really didn’t expect this movie to great (as my expectations were semi-low), but I was expecting a bit more from this movie than what was presented in the final product of the feature. Thus, it goes without saying that this movie is definite “skip it” for my recommendation as it rarely does anything to muster up what’s already been said and done in other kid adventure movies (just watch 1999’s Iron Giant and you’ll get the same story, but in totally better way). In the end, Daly’s short film is pretty good (worth a glance), but A-X-L, the feature length version of that “proof-of-concept”, is mostly a forgettable tale of a boy and his robotic dog that will fade into the background of the 2018 movie releases.
2.4 Out of 5 (Skip It)
Released On: August 24th, 2018
Reviewed On: August 28th, 2018
A-X-L is 100 minutes long and is rated PG for some sci-fi action / peril, suggestive material, thematic elements, and some language