PLOT: After returning home from Afghanistan, war dog Max is given to the family of his deceased handler. While still suffering from the after effects of the war, Max grows close to the angst-ridden younger brother of his former master, and a heartfelt friendship is born.
REVIEW: The several canine actors who play Max in MAX deserved better material than this. So did the humans. Come to think of it, so do the actual war dogs this movie takes its inspiration from, because while MAX may arrive with good intentions and bring awareness to these brave military mutts, the story conjured up here hardly gives them the due they merit. Instead, we're given over to a hackneyed plot that barely scratches the surface of what makes a dog like Max special.
Max is a battle-scarred dog who, while in Afghanistan, loses his master, genial Texas boy Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell). We've barely met Kyle before he dies during an ambush; he unwisely listened to his hometown buddy Tyler (Luke Kleintank) instead of Max, whose job it was to scout out dangerous terrain for the troops. Max returns to Texas with a case of PTSD, and because he's so lost without Kyle he seems destined to be put down. Enter Kyle's grieving family: Blue-collar Ray (Thomas Haden Church), perfect mom Pamela (Lauren Graham) and snotty son Justin (Josh Wiggins), who seems preoccupied with video games and not much else. Naturally, Max only takes a shine to the closed-off Justin, who initially finds the pooch to be a burden but eventually warms up to him.
While Max is definitely a handful (he barks allll night), he too loosens up, ultimately becoming Justin's constant companion; plenty of the thanks belongs to Josh's new crush Carmen (Mia Xitlali), who is something of a dog whisperer. Max and Justin get into a few minor adventures before the movie's real plot begins, as Tyler returns to town with an unwholesome agenda.
Director Boaz Yakin and his team of animal handlers certainly give us our money's worth when it comes to the character of Max, which I'm guessing will be enough for a large portion of the audience. Portrayed by a bevy of Belgian Malinois, Max is exceptionally expressive, not to mention a very impressive physical specimen (I hope they hydrated these dogs well considering all the intense running they're forced to do). When Yakin is content to focus on simple moments between Max and Justin, MAX is - if not exactly compelling - at least an easygoing watch. (Though MAX will be much more palatable at home; nothing about this movie screams "big screen experience," especially considering the so-so production value.)
But too much of MAX is dominated by the unnecessary plot revolving around Tyler, who was a coward overseas but is a manipulative sociopath back home. Tyler is running guns for the Mexican cartel and keeping them at Ray's storage facility, putting everyone in danger. Max knows what's up, of course, and Tyler apparently becomes concerned the dog will turn him over to the police. Hence Max is framed for things he didn't do, and everyone turns their backs on him... except Justin. Can Max clear his slobbery name and bring the villains to justice after all?
If this all sounds ridiculous, it is; everything involving Tyler is not only forced, but it's strangely unappealing as well. Convinced the intrigue of watching Max deal with life stateside isn't enough, the filmmakers have decided to shoehorn in a few action sequences that are both silly and ugly. One of Tyler's cohorts, a corrupt deputy, has two Rottweilers that are as savage as their master, and a couple of knock-down, drag-out fights between the bad dogs and the good one are seriously gratuitous. If Yakin wanted to ramp up the tension in MAX, he could have found several other ways to do it without resorting to dog-fighting sequences. These scenes, and many of the others in the film's third act, are indicative of a screenplay that is uncomfortable just being about Max's journey home; there evidently needs to be extraneous villains, explosions and a body count. The script was co-written by ex-Marine Sheldon Lettich, whose other writing credits include BLOODSPORT, LIONHEART and DOUBLE IMPACT. Yes, this is what happens when a writer known for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies pens a dog-centric family flick.
The humans make the most of it, but they've really got their work cut out for them. Wiggins, in only his second film role, acquits himself well, and Church and Graham are pros who know how to play put-upon parents. Even Kleintank isn't bad as the unhinged Tyler. But their dialogue is flat and their character arcs completely predictable. (Dad learns to love his younger son as much as his older one and learns to appreciate Mexicans!) Indeed, anything involving these cardboard cutouts isn't worth much of your time, but when MAX is actually about Max, it's tugs a heartstring or two. You just can't help but feel the subject matter is worthy of more than the generic treatment it has been given here.