Nutshell: Max pulls all the right heartstrings. Kids coming together, family bonding, and a freakin’ beautiful dog that has his own hero’s journey to deal with. What’s not to love? Well, the cookie-cutter plot, maybe. But if you don’t shed a tear sometime during this film, you’re dead inside. Grade: B
Did you know that the military uses dogs as part of their ground troops? Maybe, if you’ve heard of Rin Tin Tin. Max the pup may not have gone on to fame and fortune, but Max, the “whiff of a true story” film ties together films like American Sniper, E.T. and Hachi to form a family-friendly, tear-jerker of a film that has a feel-good ending. Let the Fourth of July cash registers ring!
Max, a Belgian Malinois (aka “that dog looks like a German Shepherd”) trained as a Military working dog, is devastated when his human handler Kyle Wincott dies during a firefight in Afghanistan. Back in the State, Kyle’s family is similarly devastated. But Max isn’t taking the loss well, and the Marines may have to put the pup down. So the Wincotts take in Max…whose military skills prove to be helpful in protecting Kyle’s brother Justin from bad guys.
First off, yes you’ve seen Kyle before; he’s Robbie Amell, aka Ronnie Raymond/one half of Firestorm in The Flash (and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow this fall). Amell’s all-American looks and nice-guy grin go a long way in setting the tone in the Afghanistan scenes; Kyle is The Good One, trying to do the right thing and keep his team (and dog) alive. So naturally, there’s a Bad One, Kyle’s hometown BFF Tyler (Luke Kleintank, Pretty Little Liars/Bones). Max lays everything out for you in black-and-white; good guys are good, bad guys are bad, and kids are obnoxious but secretly have hearts of gold.
The main kid in question, Kyle’s videogame junkie/bootlegger Justin (Josh Wiggins) is your stereotypical mumblecore kid. Too sucked into his games to interact with his parents, whom he sees as caring more about his brother than about him. It doesn’t help that Mom and Dad (Gilmore Girls‘ Lauren Graham and Wings‘ Thomas Haden Church) thrust Max upon Justin with a simple “he’s your dog now.” Thanks, guys.
But Max immediately takes to Justin, and the two form a bond. And just when I worried that this film would gloss over the difficulties in dealing with an animal with PTSD, in comes Justin’s BFF Chuy (Dejon LaQuake) and Chuy’s “Dog Whisperer” cousin Carmen (Mia Xitlali, a talented newcomer I hope to see much more of). There’s plenty of real-world training 411, and though said training goes by very quickly, it’s enough to make this military fairy tale read true. Though I did flash back to Winnie’s supernaturally adept tracking in Hotel Transylvania whenever Max was able to track someone even when that someone get in a car and drives away….
The only problem with the friendship between Justin and Chuy is Chuy’s hardcore misogyny and self-hatred. He’s constantly telling Carmen that she’s not feminine enough (she’s even told to “go put on a dress” by another family member), and making cracks about illegal immigrants/Latinos having to run from the law. It’s tacky and tiresome. Luckily, Mia’s Carmen more than makes up for it in intelligence, real-world smarts and low-key character-building. (Though the inevitable romance between Justin and Carmen feels like it goes from zero to relationship in the blink of an eye. A slow, subtle burn would have worked just as well, without the unnecessary dumbing down for the masses.)
Max doesn’t have much of a plot beyond “that dog better be good or else…hey, that dog’s good!” But for fans of a good tear-up, this is your film. Two words: Kyle’s funeral. Two more: holiday fireworks. There are plenty of touching moments, which makes this a perfect all-ages film. (Note: this film is rated PG, so wartime scenes and bad-guy chases could be too intense for sensitive wee ones.)
For moviegoers looking for a 4th of July film that doesn’t involve dudes stripping or robots taking over the world, this could hit the spot.