To call Max your standard family fare would be misleading, as not many kid flicks contain illegal arms dealing, PTSD, and a corrupt police force.
Max does… and maybe that’s the problem.
After his handler, Kyle, is killed in combat, army-dog Max returns home. However, he struggles to fit back in to normal life, as all the bombs and bullets have left him with post-traumatic stress disorder (dogs get it too, apparently).
It’s kinda like Born on the 4th of July, but with a dog instead of Tom Cruise.
Kyle’s family take Max in, and soon Max warms to moody teenage son Justin, seemingly sensing that Justin is Kyle’s brother (or some such). Thus, the emotionally shut-off Justin must bond with the damaged Max, a symbiotic relationship forming between man and dog.
And that would’ve been fine, if the film didn’t then completely lose its way.
The filmmakers thought that a nice warm-hearted tale simply wouldn’t be enough, so shootouts and showdowns are crammed in, like a fake Santa stuck halfway down a chimney. Instead of anything with real emotional connection, we’re given a generic and pointless weapons dealing subplot.
What’s meant to excite simply bores, and Max becomes just something to get through.
Which is a pity, because newcomer Josh Wiggins is really rather watchable. He doesn’t have the hurt of Tye Sheridan (Mud, Joe), but his stoic demeanour and coy looks to the side mean we’ll be seeing a lot more of him soon enough.
The cast is rounded out by some clichéd Mexican characters (who painfully deliver dialogue like ‘Yo B, you let on us?’), and Lauren Graham and Thomas Haden Church, who play the parents. Church is the film’s strongest asset. No other actor working today is able to express the emotion of not being able to express your emotions better than Church.
Weirdly enough, we live in a world of excellent canine actors. There’s an award for dog performers at the Cannes Film Festival, the Palm Dog, and Alsatian star Rin-Tin-Tin was actually voted the Best Actor at the first ever Oscars, before the academy decided that, you know, a human should probably take home gold.
So, although it seems unfair to say, Max just doesn’t quite live up to his canine competitors. He bites and barks and pants as all dogs do, but has no discernable personality. It feels like your average dog, a performing pooch jumping through hoops for some off-screen master, rather than an actual part of the plot.
In fact, anything that distinguishes Max is altogether farfetched. With the slightest of scents, Max can track targets across miles and mountains, through streams and woodland, his supernatural skillset stretched beyond the point of believability.
He might be a good boy, but not a good character.
So, in the search for easy excitement, a good cast are wasted and an emotional tale goes missing.
It’s no Cujo, or Old Yeller, or Sounder.
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