Move over, Rin Tin Tin. Go home, Lassie. Get outta here, Benji. There's a new dog in town. Max is a Belgian Shepherd, but he's more than that: he's an American hero, and unquestionably the greatest movie dog of all time.
You see, Max is a dog with a very special job. He's been tasked with sniffing out bombs and enemy weapons in Afghanistan. It's extremely dangerous work, but Max is fearless. His handler is Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell, The Flash), a U.S. Marine who is almost as brave and noble as Max. One day, Max uncovers a massive weapons cache – good boy, Max! Unfortunately, this development leads to Kyle finding out that his fellow soldier Tyler Harne (Luke Kleintank, Gossip Girl) has been working on the side as a weapons dealer. Bad boy, Tyler! Before Kyle can report Tyler to his superiors, the soldiers and Max find themselves caught up in a chaotic conflict with the enemy. Tyler is unscathed, but Max is injured and Kyle is killed.
Then, we're treated to one of the most shamelessly hokey movie scenes of the year: at the funeral, as Kyle's mother Pamela (Lauren Graham, Gilmore Girls), father Ray (Thomas Haden Church, Sideways) and little brother Justin (Josh Wiggins, Hellion) are saying a tearful goodbye, a handful of marines burst into the church with Max in tow. The choir stops singing, and everyone turns around. Max dolefully walks down Kyle's flag-covered casket, places his two front paws on top of it and whimpers while sentimental music swells on the soundtrack. This is beyond corny, but I started getting a little bit misty-eyed, anyway, because Max is a good boy, dammit.
The ceaseless jingoism in the film's first half-hour or so is a little much (there are enough American flags to fill the next ten years of military recruitment commercials), but eventually the film starts to zero in on a fairly sweet, affecting story about Justin and Max trying to help each other heal: Max is still recovering from his battle wounds, and both Max and Justin are still trying to overcome Kyle's death. None of this is even remotely subtle, but it's moving in a basic, ham-fisted sort of way. Then, everything starts going off the rails.
I don't know where writer/director Boaz Yakin (whose biggest claim to fame is the inspirational footbal movie Remember the Titans) got the idea to turn this tale of patriotism and grief into a weirdly violent thriller involving a powerful drug cartel, but that's precisely what happens. It turns out that Tyler is back in town, and that he's attempting to sell weapons to a cartel represented by the sinister Emilio (Joseph Julian Soria, Army Wives). It also seems that Max is well aware that Tyler is a bad dude, which inspires Tyler to claim that Max is responsible for Kyle's death. Ray quickly determines to have Max put down, but Justin protests – he just knows Max isn't that sort of dog.
There are an awful lot of guns onscreen for a PG-rated family drama, and the film builds to an awfully nasty climax. The dog's life is placed in danger on a surprisingly regular basis throughout the film's second half, and it feels too manipulative – even by the standards of a movie containing the aforementioned “dog whimpering during a funeral” scene. The hard-edged stuff also feels curiously out of sync with the more sentimental material that dominates the first half. There's precious little tonal consistency in this flick (which also makes room for a cutesy love story involving Justin and a outgoing local girl played by Mia Xitlali), save for a consistent desire to wring cheap emotion out of every other scene.
Still, I was only half-joking when I called Max the greatest movie dog of all time. He's a terrific dog (played by six dogs, which makes him even more amazing), with soulful, expressive eyes and a fairly convincing array of (non-CG-enhanced) emotional reactions. Of course, half of the reason he stands out is that he doesn't have any English-language lines (A sample of Justin's dialogue: “I don't know, dad, I guess I'm not a hero like you and Kyle. That is just how the world turns”). He's a promising star trapped in a thoroughly mediocre movie, and I hope that Hollywood gives him at least as many chances as it has given Jai Courtney.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Year: 2015