We all need loyalty in our lives — that innate desire to have a friend or loved who will be there for us no matter what. And in cinema, this type of devoted friendship is often found in stories about a boy and his dog. From Old Yeller to My Dog Skip, a genuine bond is formed between a child and their four-legged co-star that isn’t always possible between two humans, and somehow finds a way to play the heartstrings in a way that even the hardest of men become blubbering children. Max is the latest of these films to hit theaters, and with its quiet release comes a honored tribute to the brave dogs trained for military service, adding a level of heroism and complexity that goes beyond the normal boy and his dog storyline. (And yes, I am aware there are girl and her dog stories (Because of Winn-Dixie) and men and their dog stories (Marley & Me), but let’s face it, the genre is predominantly young males… it’s just how it is.)
Max is an amalgamation of the hundreds of dogs trained to sniff out bombs and weapons in hostile territories such as Iraq and Afghanistan that, like many soldiers themselves, acquire a form of PTSD upon their return home. He also represents the dedication these dogs have to their jobs as well as the kinship they share with their handlers — soldiers who form bonds with the dogs that build the trust needed when out in the field. At one point in the film, we get to see footage of Max being entrusted to his handler, Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell). It’s in these short sequences that we get to see the respect the soldiers and dogs have for one another, giving us better insight as to why a a soldier would risk his life for the dog and vice-versa. It’s this type of risk that becomes the inciting incident for the film. When Max becomes caught in the cross-fire during a routine scouting mission, Kyle’s first instinct to protect Max gets him killed in the crossfire. Since trying to pair an older dog with a new handler is far too risky, Max’s service is terminated, sending him back home where he needs to start a new life away from everything he’s ever known. To keep him from being put down (or locked up for the rest of his life), Kyle’s family chooses to adopt Max in honor of their son’s heroic service.
Max is quickly introduced to Kyle’s younger brother, Justin (Josh Wiggins), who right from the jump is an unintentional enigma. We’re never really privy to the reasons behind the distant nature of his relationship to either his parents (Thomas Haden Church and Lauren Graham) or his brother, so I was never quite sure where he was coming from in order to connect with him and his journey throughout the film. We never get to see what the relationship between Justin and Kyle was like before Kyle enlisted, subduing the emotional subtext needed to enhance the bond Justin makes with Max. Not only that, but director Boaz Yakin skirts any real attempt at the impact Kyle’s death has on the family. Max is supposed to be the driving force that allows the family to heal, but other than a very brief moment when Kyle’s family learns of his death, and an even shorter moment at the funeral, there isn’t much about Kyle’s death that changes anything in the dynamics of the family. Sadly, Kyle’s death does nothing but trigger Max’s arrival.
Another misstep Yakin makes in developing the friendship between Justin and Max is in how quickly they bond. There is a little friction at first, but with how bad the Sergeant (Jay Hernandez) claims Max’s PTSD is, there should have been a greater resistance than what they actually go through (and having Max sense Justin as being related to Kyle isn’t enough). It seems like it’s only a couple of days from when Max is brought home to when he’s obeying Justin without question or running alongside him in the woods in a playful chase among friends, glossing over the entire issue of Max and his PTSD. Even when we’re treated to a wonderful scene when Justin goes to comfort Max during the Fourth of July fireworks, I was still left with a sense of disconnect, as the moment happens after the two have all but forged a solid friendship (as opposed to this being the moment when that bond is officially born).
There are some terrific scenes, though, that really showcase Max’s loyalty and sacrificial nature. As part of the overall main plot, one of Kyle’s military brothers, Tyler Harne (Luke Kleintank), returns home claiming he was injured, but outright lies about how Kyle died, turning the devastating events on Max (leading to a subplot between Justin’s dad and Max that remains well above the surface). It turns out, Tyler is selling Russian weapons found in the field to a cartel, a connection he got from a thug (Joseph Julian Soria) who also buys bootlegged video games from Justin (yeah, that’s a stretch, but it works well enough for what it is). At one point, Max and Justin track Tyler to a pre-transaction meeting between Tyler and the cartel. When Justin’s phone is overheard, Tyler sicks a pair of rottweilers on them. Max fights them off (in a couple of brutal, yet mesmerizing sequences), but in order to protect Justin, Max runs away, drawing the dogs after him. It shows not only how smart these dogs are, but how much they care for those who care and protect them.
Like any other film of this nature, we pretty much know what will happen during the climax, but like everything else in the film, that too is watered down a little too much. The events happen so quickly, that we aren’t given anytime to absorb what happens before we’re treated to the resolution. In trying to cater to both themes (the boy and his dog and the tribute to military dogs), Yakin (who also wrote the screenplay with Sheldon Lettich) isn’t quite sure how to manage either one, but is able to keep us entertained and inspired, mostly because of his respect for the subject matter and the way he portrays Max, proving just how remarkable dogs truly are.
My Grade: B
Next week, new movies include Terminator:Genisys and Magic Mike XXL. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.