A-X-L is exactly the sort of movie I would have begged my parents to rent for me from my local video store in northeast Philly circa 1988. It’s got a robot that looks like a Terror Dog from Ghostbusters, most of its thematic elements are stolen from E.T. and Short Circuit, and the film takes for granted that, in the teen culture world it presents, dirt bikes and motocross races are as popular as football. In fact, nothing else goes on except for motocross racing. I lived for all that stuff when I was a kid! It really is a shame that A-X-L accidentally came out thirty years too late for any of this to really jell into a movie that might connect with an audience.
Still, I can’t really figure out the point of view of this film. I noticed this around the scene where a government agent shows up on the doorstep and starts asking questions about what happened to the stolen asset (lost robot dog). Spielberg, a director I have no real love for, still would have known to keep these scenes suspenseful since they’re tied to our protagonist being found out. Or Joe Dante might have connected these shadowy characters more to Cold War-era paranoid thrillers while cranking the silliness of the scenario up to 11. But Oliver Daly, A-X-L’s director, seems to be at a loss in the world-building department and similarly anchorless when it comes to tone.
But you still get the robot dog movie you came for. Plus, the overall look and feel of the movie are spot on, evoking a time when movies aimed at kids and young adults rarely bothered themselves with explaining much in the way of why the plot mechanics work the way they do and just got down to the business of telling their own weird little stories. So I’m forgiving a lot here and choosing to ignore the ways A-X-L fails as a piece of filmmaking. Again: It’s a cool robot dog movie.
As leads Miles and Sara, Alex Neustaedter and singer Becky G do just fine, playing the sort of characters that always feature in films like this. They find a robot dog and have to protect it. They bond with it. They become a team and must fight off the school bully (or, in this case, the motocross champ who inexplicably has it in for them both). The evil and greedy government villains are perfectly evil and greedy. Thomas Jane, as father to Miles, is gruff but sweet. And robot-dog Axl, the A-X-L of the title, is funny and scary and all the things he needs to be. It’s a movie with no real purpose or any big ideas in its head, but it’s enjoyable for the dumb fun it is, at least minute to minute. A-X-L never really drags and only as it winds down in the third act does it start to falter and lose its footing, ending on a particularly clumsy sequel setup that the film doesn’t need at all. But I’d still take ten more of these one-off sci-fi teen adventure films before I ever start caring about that Bumblebee movie.