Entertainment

Sluggish 'Max Steel' isn't ready for the big screen

Posted October 18

"MAX STEEL" — 1½ stars — Ben Winchell, Josh Brener, Andy Garcia, Ana Villafañe; PG-13 (some science fiction action violence); in general release

There’s a kind of vagueness about “Max Steel” that seems to be covering for a lack of substance beneath its sheen. Based on the Mattel toy and game series, director Stewart Hendler’s “Max Steel” is the origin story for a superhero that doesn’t feel ready for the big screen.

Ben Winchell plays Max McGrath, a ponderous teen who, alongside his mother Molly (Maria Bello), has just returned to the small town where he was born. The two of them left when Max was just a few weeks old, following a tragic lab accident that claimed the life of his scientist father Jim (Mike Doyle).

As they unpack, Max and Molly discover that their old family home hasn’t been touched in the last 16 years, right down to the generous stock of Spam in the basement fallout shelter. But that’s just part of the weirdness that tracks Max like a loyal puppy.

Every time Max gets around anything electronic, strange things happen. Phones short out around him and he can disturb the broadcasts of the Kung Fu movies that play on perpetual loop on his TV. Then, pretty much out of nowhere, magic floating particles start streaming from his fingers — he calls it “liquid energy” when he runs his obligatory Google search. A normal person — even a teen — might look for professional help at this point, but logic isn’t one of the film's strong points.

In the meantime, a mysterious robotic probe named Steel (voiced by Josh Brener) has awakened from the deep recesses of Papa McGrath’s old lab after — no coincidence — 16 years. After blasting its way past security, Steel searches out Max with some strange news: Together, they are to defend the planet against an invading alien force called Ultralinks.

Essentially, Max and Steel will work kind of the way Tony Stark works with Jarvis to make Iron Man. If they are in “harmony,” a suit of armor will appear that will channel Max’s powers. But Max’s powers are alien, and much more vague than Iron Man’s rockets and laser beams. In fact, aside from an instinctive grasp of martial arts, it’s hard to nail down exactly what Max’s powers are.

But never mind. Before realizing his destiny, Max must understand what happened in his past, so he seeks out the help of Dr. Miles Edwards (Andy Garcia), a well-dressed ex-colleague of his father’s. He also enlists the help of a local girl named Sofia (Ana Villafañe), who also must figure into his destiny seeing as she almost hits him with her car twice.

Much of “Max Steel” feels as obligatory as the hero’s female counterpart. Winchell and Villafañe feel like attractive placeholders more than romantic leads, and though Bello and Garcia are welcome presences, their parts are far too thin to lend any real substance to the film.

Stripped down to its parts, “Max Steel” is a sluggish mix of vague mystery, flashy visual effects and stretches of expositional dialogue plugged into explain pieces of the story after the fact. It feels like a pale shadow of many, many better science fiction films and superhero stories from decades past.

After an 1 hour and 32 minutes on screen, “Max Steel” just doesn’t have anything of its own to say. If the popularity of the toy was strong enough to bring the story to the big screen, fans won’t find much in “Max Steel” to justify the wait.

"Max Steel" is rated PG-13 for some science fiction action violence; running time: 92 minutes

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.

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