July 3, 2015

Movie Reviews by Reel People: 'Max'

By Ron and Leigh Martel, Columnists, The Friday Flyer


There are so few movies about dogs. So, if this is what you were looking for, sit, stay, heel. “Max” can be a heartwarming family feature about a military trained canine that helped the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan. Traumatized after his master is killed in battle, Max returns to the U.S. and is adopted by his handler's family.

The premise of a boy and his dog is typical for an after-school special, so writer-director-producer Boaz Yakin adds a multicultural subplot involving a small-time arms dealer and Mexican drug cartel. Unfortunately, the script, direction and acting are fairly predictable and do not effectively support all that is going down.

Animal lovers will appreciate the magnificence of this Belgian Malinois, a breed often used in police and military work, including by Seal Team 6 in the Operation to kill Osama Bin Laden. There are five dogs playing Max in this film. We’re not sure if it’s a good thing or bad; but combined, their performance exceeds that of their human counterparts.

Max is distraught and suffers from his own form of post-traumatic stress syndrome after his handler Kyle (Robbie Amell, TV’s “The Flash”) loses his life. For some reason, Max takes to Kyle’s brooding teenage brother, Justin (Josh Wiggins, “Hellion”), who is disrespectful to his parents and on the edge of some unlawful transactions.

The film also stars Thomas Haden Church and Lauren Graham, as Ray and Pamela Wincott, as the parents. Although Church was the Sandman in the blockbuster “SpiderMan 3,” he is more associated with similarly small films, such as “Sideways,” “We Bought a Zoo” and “Heaven is for Real.” Graham is better known for starring roles in hit TV shows such as “Parenthood” and “Gilmore Girls.”

This has an old fashioned storyline, but updated with modern war action, Hispanic friends and a convincing evil element. There are patriotic undertones, emotional manipulation and father-son coming of age story. Then, the weapons sale to the cartel takes it too far. The storyline could be better, but the awkward delivery neuters its spirit.

On the positive side, it’s exhilarating to see Max in action, whether protecting our soldiers, sprinting through the wooded trails or leaping across ravines. It’s also touching to watch Justin and Max work through their grief by building a self-healing relationship. Finally, there are plenty of opportunities for those who want to wave their flags.

The story takes place near San Antonio, Texas (filmed primarily in North Carolina). By coincidence, Thomas Haden Church was raised in Texas and son of a Marine. Scenes of animal peril, including fights between Max and a couple of Rottweilers may be too brutal and verge on the appearance of animal cruelty. So, although the adventure works for a specific audience, it may not resonate with the general public, even with the name Max, which is currently America’s most popular name for a dog.

The cast also includes Tyler Harne (TV shows such as “Pretty Little Liars” and “Bones”), as the evil soldier, newcomer Mia Xitlali as Justin’s girlfriend Carmen, and veteran actor Jay Hernandez, as the Marine Sergeant who helps the family. Interesting side note that the role of a Taliban insurgent is played by Walid Hakim, a former United States Marine.

“Max” is 111 minutes and rated PG for action violence, peril, language and thematic elements. Apparently, dogs have been used in the military since WWI. Today’s military dogs need years of training and are outfitted with bulletproof vests, night-vision goggles and cameras with infrared vision. So, nobody can claim, “That dog don’t hunt!”

Over 3,000 dogs have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan to advance our mission and save American lives. During the credits, footage is shown of actual war dogs over the years, to honor the sacrifices of these noble animals. This movie has flaws, but might be like a dog walking on its hind legs. It’s not that it’s done well, it’s that it’s done at all.

Ron’s Rating: C Leigh’s Rating: D