From the poster, A.X.L. looks like one of the fake movies Vinny Chase would star in on Entourage, which might lead you to believe that it’s a good choice for a night of getting drunk and laughing at a bad movie with your friends. It is not. Save yourself the heartbreak and rent xXx: Return Of Xander Cage instead, because this film—which is coming out in wide release, despite having the look and tone of one of The Asylum’s infamous “mockbusters”—is something worse than bad. It’s utterly forgettable.
Specifically, it’s a shameless ripoff of the Transformers franchise, but with a twist. This is the film that dares to ask: What if the super-cool robot that bonds with the brooding underdog and his gearhead love interest could, at any moment, malfunction and rip them both to shreds? For, you see, while there are Transformers intent on killing humans in that particular pop mythos, they tend not to overlap with the friendly ones with the wide, pleading, mechanically blinking robot eyes. This film combines them in the character of A.X.L., a high-tech experimental weapon designed to look, act, and bond with humans like a dog. (A giant dog that’s taller than the female lead, but a dog nonetheless.) It’s also capable of mangling humans in its metallic maw—which is full of teeth that spin like drill bits for some reason—should its owner order it to, a design with an alarming potential for malfunction and abuse that remains completely unexplored in this PG-rated family adventure.
At the beginning of the movie, A.X.L. escapes from the experimental facility at which it was developed, evading surveillance drones and rounds of machine-gun fire as it gallops away across the scrub-covered hills of central California. Meanwhile, teenage dirt bike racer Miles (Alex Neustaedter, doing his best Alden Ehrenreich) ends up stranded in the middle of nowhere, the result of an elaborate prank by Logan Paul-esque shithead Sam (Alex MacNicoll) and his tittering lackeys that’s too boring to recount here, despite the fact that it involves a flamethrower. That’s when Miles discovers the injured robot dog cowering in an empty shipping container; thankfully, A.X.L. does not immediately maul Miles, and the two bond over the sweet jumps Miles can do on his dirt bike. Then Miles’ sort-of girlfriend Sara (Becky G, doing her best Selena Gomez) shows up in her pickup truck, and the two enjoy a romantic evening dancing to King Harvest’s “Dancing In The Moonlight” to the light of the disco ball embedded in A.X.L.’s head.
If you’re already asking yourself, “wait, what?,” we strongly suggest skipping this film, in which motivations are baffling, time mind-bendingly malleable, and logic breaks down like a burned-out 1996 Honda Civic in the jaws of a junkyard car crusher. (It does, to give it some credit, have a better and more evocative sense of place than most films of its caliber.) The mechanical simile there is no accident, as A.X.L. is clearly trying to appeal to the late elementary-school demographic that just loves Transformers and everything related to them, and is not picky about their entertainment as long as it involves robots and/or trains.
It’s hard to imagine who else would want to watch this utterly generic, sloppily conceived film badly enough to see it in theaters. Sure, Thomas Jane co-stars as Miles’ similarly grease-stained mechanic dad, but the odds of there being much overlap between the audiences for A.X.L. and Hung seem slim. A.X.L. does show one brief glimmer of self-awareness midway through, as Sara gives a friendly pat to their robot death machine/new best friend and says, “it’s crazy what the military chooses to spend its money on.” The same could be said for movie studios. Why not just put this thing out on VOD and be done with it?