Canine Heroes Deserve Better
On the heels of the widespread attention received by Marine sniper Chris Kyle in 2014’s American Sniper, America’s military working dogs (MWD) get their turn at glory with a movie called Max, a family drama about a military dog stricken with PTSD who returns from active duty to face the struggles of adjusting to civilian life. What a shame our four-legged war heroes will have to wait for a film worthy of the respect and dignity they so deserve.
It’s clear that writer/director Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans) loves animals and wants to honor the legacy of our canine heroes. He clearly understands the primal bond that happens when people connect with an animal and knows the depth of that relationship often surpasses what we experience with other people. Where Yakin fails however, is in bringing that near-abstract concept to his film. As a result, Max is an over-plotted melodramatic mess with single-note characters and a tone teetering between After School Special and low-budget Disney Channel fare. Yakin was going for wholesome family drama that plays to traditional American values (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but the result is so cornball that it’s difficult for us to hold our cynicism in check.
Max is a Belgian Malinois, the breed of choice to serve as America’s MWDs. He’s a precision-trained military dog serving on the frontline in Afghanistan alongside his handler, U.S. Marine Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell). During maneuvers, things go horribly awry, leaving Kyle dead and Max traumatized by the loss of his best friend.
Thanks to 2000’s Robby’s law, MWDs are no longer euthanized, but are instead put up for adoption by their handler or handler’s family. Unfortunately, Max’s violent disposition caused by the effects of PTSD makes him nearly un-adoptable. That is, until he shows an affinity for Kyle’s kid brother Justin (Josh Wiggins), a troubled teen who would rather play video games than accept the responsibility of rehabilitating his brother’s dog. Justin reluctantly agrees, however, and accepts the help of a neighborhood Carmen (Mia Xitlali), a neighbourhood girl who fits nearly every Mexican-American stereotype known to man, and who just happens to know a bit about dog training – her cousin trains pit bulls. See what I mean?
Yakin tries everything he can to hitch his wagon to the feel-good emotions we all experience while watching those viral videos of MWDs lying mournfully alongside their handler’s flag-draped casket. But in Max, the emotion is just not there. Perhaps a bit more time spent with Kyle and Max at the story’s outset would allow us to experience the pair’s deep bond. The film’s tagline is “Best Friend. Hero. Marine.” But we don’t get that. Instead, Kyle’s dog becomes a sympathy case that causes us to dislike nearly every one of the film’s human characters, especially Justin’s hot-headed father (Thomas Haden Church), who falls for the lie told by Kyle’s friend that his son’s death was actually caused by Max.
Wiggins fails to impress in his leading role as the younger brother trying to live up to the ideals of a demanding father and over-achieving sibling. Justin lives in his own orbit but never quite garners our complete sympathy, even when it becomes clear he will be the only thing to come between his trigger-happy father and Max. Lauren Graham is forgettable as the grieving mother figure, as is nearly everyone else, appropriately leaving Max as the best actor of the entire bunch. He nails his cues and even conveys emotions with an occasional twist or contortion of his face.
As Max slowly begins to adjust to civilian life, his bond with Justin strengthens. But that homeland bliss gets interrupted when we learn that Kyle’s co-marine friend is selling heavy weapons he stole while serving in Afghanistan to bad guys across the border in Mexico. Faster than we cans say “woof,” Yakin’s film changes tone and becomes a caper film as justice lies on the shoulders of Justin and Max who try to break up the smuggling ring.
We really want to love this redemption story about a troubled teen and his dog. Its heart is certainly in the right place. But with too many disparate stories, lackluster production value, and a jarringly uneven tone, this dog just won’t hunt. Our canine military heroes deserve so much better.
(Released by Warner Bros and rated “PG-13” for action violence, peril, brief language and some thematic elements.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.