For as long as you grant the premise of its increasingly-absurd plot, Max will be one of the most intense and harrowing PG family film around – that could last an hour maybe,or minutes. A soldier’s death, a friend’s betrayal, a loyal canine in the crosshairs, a Mexican cartel, rocket launchers, and a fair amount of dog-fighting make up this patriotic adventure from Boaz Yakin that follows a four-legged war veteran on his life back in the homeland.
Max appropriates the existence and endurance of canine soldiers, using the titular Belgian Malinois to tell a generic story that covers a wide range of emotions, both genuine and artificial. When his handler Kyle (Robbie Amell) is killed in a firefight in Afghanistan, Max returns home and is distraught. Suffering post traumatic stress and the death of his best friend and comrade, Max loses control and is sentenced to be put down.
Enter Kyle’s rebellious and closed-off younger brother Justin (Josh Wiggins), whose familial bond apparently endears him to Max. The son of blue-collar parents (Thomas Haden Church, Lauren Graham) living in heartland America, where flags fly and everyone owns a gun, Justin rides his bike through the woods with his friends and copies video games illegally in his spare time. His father, a Gulf War veteran who runs a storage facility, would rather his should earn a living.
Of course as Justin gets to know Max, and in turn his best friend’s cousin Carmen (Ma Xitlali) who (of course) knows a thing or two about pets, Justin slowly becomes warmer and more mature.
That’s not enough though for this family adventure, which seems to want to bill itself as something simpler, more intimate that outlandish summer blockbuster fare, but instead falls into the same traps. An elaborate story unravels preposterously involving Kyle’s deceitful friend, a local violent miscreant, and a plot to sell weapons. It’s not enough that maybe Max is violent and that Justin and his father don’t get along – we need to put them all together in the woods of this southern town and have chases, gun shots, and fighting.
Max loses its welcoming and soft nature in a third act that becomes far too outrageous, but any moment where you stop and think about what’s going on – that a group of kids on BMX bikes and a dog are doing battle against a violent gang – you’re taken out of everything.
Still, it’s hard to watch an expressive dog on screen and not feel a little bit of something. Maybe it’s a bit of alarm that naturally, inherently, audiences will care more about his well-being than that of any of the human characters, but maybe it’s just unapologetic embrace. Regardless, Max runs as a potent and educational film; parents can explain the nature of life and death, the raw panic and fear held inside humans, and the need for movie studios to sacrifice nuance and thought in the service of clichés, nonsensical action, and patriotic pandering.