Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated PG for action violence, peril, brief language and some thematic elements.
Running time: 111 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.
“Max” is a strange beast.
It is, in theory, a family-friendly movie about courage and friendship, with a brave and handsome military search dog at its center. Who doesn’t like dogs? What could possibly go wrong?
In reality, though, “Max” is an absurdly violent PG-rated movie in which kids and dogs are repeatedly in peril — and often the potential targets for gunfire. There’s also death in the line of duty, a family’s mourning, a weapons-smuggling ring involving bad guys from both sides of the Mexican border, a kidnapping, a near drowning and some massive explosions. At one point, my 5 1/2-year-old son, Nicolas — who loves dogs and goes out of his way to say hi to every single one he sees in our neighborhood — turned to me during the screening and said: “This movie is too violent.”
He was right — and in retrospect, Nic was too young for “Max.” But beyond the potentially frightening material, director and co-writer Boaz Yakin’s film is just a weird hodgepodge of themes and plot threads.
It’s an earnestly patriotic movie about sacrifice for one’s country, clearly aimed at conservative, Christian audiences. But it also features a character who’s way too willing to share classified information with a teenager. It has its heartwarming moments and even some thrilling ones, as that teenager and the dog learn to work together, trust each other and share spirited adventures. But it’s also about overcoming racial prejudices and owning up to oft-repeated untruths.
It’s also just not very good — and no amount of swelling, inspiring music can convince you otherwise.
Yakin (“Remember the Titans”), working from a script he co-wrote with Sheldon Lettich, veers between all these heavy ideas in ungainly fashion for the film’s nearly-two-hour running time. But he begins with the wholesome image of Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell from “The DUFF”), a good-looking Marine and dog handler who’s been deployed to Afghanistan, enjoying a Skype chat with his parents back home in small-town East Texas. His father, Ray (a glum and gruff Thomas Haden Church), is a Marine veteran himself who suffered a debilitating leg injury during Desert Storm. (Strangely, despite the frequent mention of the leg, we don’t see it a single time.) His mother, Pamela (a sadly understated and underused Lauren Graham), is the family’s dutiful and God-fearing matriarch.
But Kyle’s younger brother, Justin (Josh Wiggins), has no interest in chatting. He’d rather play video games about war, then bootleg them for his friends for profit. He’s so sick of being compared to his superstar older brother that he’s gone out of his way to be as different — and underachieving — as possible. Surely, some life lessons are in store for this wayward young man.
They come early, in one of the movie’s many multi-hanky moments, when Kyle is killed under mysterious circumstances in battle. At his funeral, Max — the brave and highly trained Belgian Malinois who’d been his constant, trusty companion — bursts through the back door of the church, stands on his hind legs to whimper over Kyle’s American flag-draped coffin, then lies down loyally on the ground in front of it.
But as Max’s trainer at the base (Jay Hernandez) informs the family, this brilliant dog refuses to respond to anyone anymore and might have to be euthanized. Cosmically, though, he has a connection with Justin. At first, the disaffected teen has zero interest in helping, until the all-night barking and whimpering become too much to bear. Justin learns to retrain Max with the aid of his good friend, the sassy Chuy (Dejon LaQuake), and Chuy’s brash and beautiful cousin, Carmen (Mia Xilali), who’s been around dogs all her life. This is the section in which “Max” really hits its stride, with the three kids working together and forming a heartwarming bond with a beautiful creature.
But soon, the movie veers off course into some strange and dangerous territory, as Justin and his pals suspect Kyle’s longtime friend and fellow Marine, Tyler (Luke Kleintank), is up to no good. Tyler’s secret meetings in the woods with leather-clad baddies are a sure sign, as are the drooling, growling Rottweilers accompanying these men. (Max finds himself brawling with these muscular canines a couple times to protect Justin and his friends, which is extremely hard to watch.) Suddenly this warmly old-fashioned, kid-adventure movie has turned into something much colder and darker.
If there’s any useful lesson to come out of “Max,” it’s that dogs can suffer fron post-traumatic stress disorder, too. In one of the film’s more artful and emotionally effective sequences, Max paces about nervously in his backyard crate as multicolored July 4th fireworks explode overhead. In one of many sensitive moments from Wiggins, Justin finds the heart to climb inside and soothe him.
It’s a rare and cutting bit of truth in a movie that’s too-often smothered in nostalgic Americana.