The phrase “the dogs of war” dates back to 1599 and the works of William Shakespeare, specifically Act 3 of the playwright’s tragedy Julius Caesar. There’s nothing Shakespearean about the war dog on display in Boaz Yakin’s Max, though parents bringing their children to theaters in hopes of a safe, mild, family-friendly experience may be wondering wherefore art the boy-and-dog adventure movie that was advertised.
For a little while, Max makes good on such a promise. The title refers to the name of a brave and loyal military mutt who accompanies U.S. Marines on missions in Afghanistan. When Max’s handler, Kyle (Robbie Amell), dies in battle, though, the PTSD-suffering pooch returns home, where the only bond he’s able to forge is with Justin (Josh Wiggins), Kyle’s disillusioned, adolescent brother.
You might think you know exactly where Max is headed You would be wrong… unless you predicted a tertiary subplot where one of Kyle’s corrupt military brethren smuggles stolen weapons back from the Middle East and sells them to Mexican gangsters in small Texas towns, prompting Justin and Max to team up and take the criminals down (through various violent scenes). What’s that? You didn’t expect that? Neither did I. And neither may a number of folks buying a ticket, so be warned.
The initial push in Max involves the arrival of the dedicated dog, and how it helps Justin come out of his social shell. Neighborhood biker gal Carmen (spitfire actress Mia Xitlali) helps Justin train Max, while Lauren Graham and Thomas Haden Church lay a bedrock of parental support to the troubled teen as he finds his way. Justin, it seems, bootlegs video games for local tough guys (an odd narrative left turn that clumsily sets up the film’s menacing third act), while Max refuses to obey anyone but the closest blood relative of his military trainer.
A movie switching gears like that isn’t necessarily frowned upon. Family films don’t have to be dumbed-down excursions, and had an opportunity to teach audiences about noble service dogs in an honorable manner. Right around the time that the gentle story about boy-dog bonding runs its course, Max tries on its crime-spree subplot, however, and it clashes with the mood of the already-unfolding story. That angle needed the adventurous touch of Scooby-Doo or the Hardy Boys, not the A-Team vibe that Yakin adopts, with gunfights, kidnappings and multiple occurrences of dog fights. Max needed to find a lane when it came to tone, and stick closer to it.
“Things really get that violent?” you are asking. They do. There’s actually a scene, later in the movie (and I’ll tapdance around spoilers) where a truck that’s loaded with ammunition catches on fire, so bullets begin whizzing at Justin, his injured father (Thomas Haden Church), Max and the main antagonist (played with a sinister drawl by Luke Kleintank). That being said, my 7-year-old sat by my side during the duration of Max. He pulled his knees into his chest during the tense scenes, and clapped loudly when Max prevailed over the bad guys. So it’s very possible I’m being overly sensitive. That doesn’t make Max a better movie. But the mildly entertaining dog story, and its handful of heroic scenes, may work more on a particular (read: younger) audience than it did on me.