When A-X-L was first announced, the description for this movie about a boy befriending a robotic war machine dog was something along the lines of, “like the wonder-filled movies of yesteryear a la Flight of the Navigator.” Naturally, the snooty child snob in me was skeptical. After all, what is cinema right now if not a cheap clamoring for unearned 80’s and 90’s nostalgia? Yes, I’m talking about you, Ready Player One.
So it was with some level of trepidation I went in to see this movie, on top of the already damning financial stories for the film’s beleaguered production company, Global Road Entertainment (the earlier summer’s bomb, Hotel Artemis, didn’t do GRE any favors). I can happily say I was very wrong, and that A-X-L might be one of the most earnest and genuine nods to those wonderous adventure films we adults grew up on.
The story isn’t overly complex, nor does it need to be. Working class kid Miles Hill (Alex Neustaedter) sees motorbike racing as his one shot out of town. His grades aren’t good, and even if they were, it’s just him and his dad, Chuck (Thomas Jane), and they can’t afford the massive bills now associated with higher education. He wins a race over wealthier, popular fellow racer Sam Fontaine (Alex MacNicoll), which leads to a fairly predictable line of, “rival is jealous, pulls a mean prank on our hero to put him in his place, and drives off leaving him alone.”
Sure enough, this is when Miles runs into A-X-L, short for Attack, Exploration, and Logistics. See, A-X-L is a very expensive (think $70 million) project the government has funded for scientist and developer Andric (Dominic Raines) to create. They want a war dog that can keep up in any conditions and be an effective killing machine, while being utterly loyal to its masters. A-X-L has escaped and is hiding from not exactly legal mini-drones out searching for him. War dog meets boy, boy fixes war dog, and they bond.
Enter Sara Reyes (Becky G). She and Miles had been mildly flirting (sparking Sam’s jealousy), and when she finds out Sam and his cronies left Miles alone in the middle of nowhere, she rushes to go find him and becomes part of the growing adventure that is now “two kids, a dog, and a military contractor using them as guinea pigs.”
The movie’s action managed to surprise me. Between the opening motorbike races, to a truly dark and intense moment with bully Sam and A-X-L, I think it might be this more than anything else that rang true to some of my favorite movies of my childhood. The director/writer Oliver Daly isn’t afraid to show his audience some of the darker aspects of humanity, even if they package it in a form that has a happy ending. As an adult, I’ve often looked back on films like The Goonies and thought, “I can’t believe they let this scene get through.” A-X-L is the same way, and just like I remind myself I was fine when watching those movies as a child, Daly has the same confidence in today’s younger audience to be able to process the more intense aspects of his film.
All in all, it’s a spectacularly charming piece of film that reminded me of the joy and, “leaning forward on the edge of my seat” experience of watching adventure films. That said, there are a few issues. While Daly’s script is actually quite effective at not leaving any dangling threads or leaving the audience with “how did point A get to point C,” it’s not exactly the most novel writing ever. It’s to be expected, this is still a happy family movie with the two romantic leads getting together… that just means we’re treated to the now tropey moments of “my heart is beating really fast.”
Daly does make up for this in his awareness of his characters and the issues they face. One of the better moments in the script is Sara laying into Miles after he attacked Sam. See, her mom works for Sam’s family as a housekeeper, they live on the Fontaine’s property, and the Fontaines help pay for her grandmother’s nursing home bills. That Daly acknowledges Sara’s situation and lets her emphatically call Miles out for the amount of harm he’s potentially brought on her family is refreshing.
But Miles. Here’s where my largest issue with the film comes into play. The writing won’t set the world on fire, but it’s still serviceable and only a fool would go into this movie expecting something on par with Citizen Kane. However, the leading man for a film like this is a crucial casting choice, and unfortunately, Neustaedter spends most of the movie about three steps above wet cardboard. Maybe this was his interpretation of a sullen teenaged boy, but what should have been a fairly dynamic character fell flat. Becky G, Jane, MacNicoll, and Raines all turn in fine performances that bring their characters to life, especially Becky G when she has to spend most of her scenes acting against Neustaedter’s monochromatic Miles. It’s a shame because with a better leading man, this film could have gone from “charming and earnest” to “you have to go see this.”
Still, the movie is charming and very earnest, and there’s a happy ending (naturally) that fits with the movie’s tone. If you’ve got time for a matinee showing, you won’t regret the ticket purchase, and your kids certainly won’t.