Film Review: ‘Max’

'Max' Review: Marine Dog and His
Warner Bros / MGM

Marine dog returns from Afghanistan, finds himself in a second-rate action thriller.

As far as canine hero stories go, “Max” is a strangely mixed breed. A hodgepodge of corny coming-of-ager, inspirational boy-and-his-pup pablum, modern-day military tale and surprisingly violent PG-rated action thriller, it’s an all-around odd choice to release up against the big dogs of summer. Even if Warner Bros. hopes some of that “American Sniper” B.O. magic rubs off on a film ostensibly about a pooch overcoming PTSD (“American Sniffer”?), woe be to the family-targeted movie competing with the likes of “Inside Out” and “Jurassic World.” Expect a bigger bite in ancillary.

Given the appeal of the Belgian Malinois (or, technically, six Belgian Malinois) playing the titular character, it’s almost a shame the film has to rely on generic bipeds to drive the action. That begins with Texan teen Justin Wincott (Josh Wiggins), who becomes Max’s de facto master after his older brother Kyle (Robbie Amell) is killed on an Afghanistan battlefield. Kyle had been Max’s Marine Corps handler since puppyhood, and there was no one the fallen soldier trusted more.

That makes Max especially significant to Justin and Kyle’s parents, Ray (Thomas Haden Church) and Pamela (Lauren Graham), who hope that family rebel Justin can develop some of his big bro’s nobility and responsibility by learning to care for his dog. (Justin bootlegs videogames, which might be a new form of Hollywood shorthand for kids headed down the wrong path.) But the incident that claimed Kyle’s life also left Max emotionally scarred. Enter lovely young dog whisperer Carmen (Mia Xitlali), who happens to be the cousin of Justin’s best friend, Chuy (Dejon LaQuake). Her mixture of animal knowledge, bike skills and sassy attitude have Justin falling head over heels, and in the process teaching Max some new tricks for life on the homefront.

For close to an hour, “Max” unfolds as a relatively low-key drama about a kid flirting with bad influences and bonding with a battle-weary animal — until a left-field subplot involving Kyle’s bad-news military buddy, Tyler (Luke Kleintank), possesses the film like the ghost of a ‘90s straight-to-video actioner. Tyler resurfaces to sell illegal arms to a Mexican gang with the help of Chuy’s thuggish cousin Emilio (Joseph Julian Soria) and a corrupt local cop (Owen Harn). When Justin and Max discover what’s going on, the first of several unexpectedly adrenalized action scenes finds Max duking it out with two vicious Rottweilers. (The conflict is so ferocious that more sensitive viewers will be sure to stick around during the end credits to confirm animal action was monitored by the American Humane Assn. It was.)

Perhaps the key to these weird plot mechanics lies with co-writer Sheldon Lettich, a former Marine himself, and a veteran scribe and occasional helmer of multiple Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicles (including “Bloodsport” and “Double Impact”). His resume ultimately seems more indicative of what auds should expect — clunky dialogue, cardboard characters and random action set pieces — than the involvement of director and co-writer Boaz Yakin, whose more inscrutable filmography ranges from “Remember the Titans” to “Uptown Girls” to the unsettling sexual-dysfunction indie “Death in Love.”

In any case, “Max” isn’t going to be a career high for any of its human participants, but the six canines playing Max — Carlos in closeups, and Jagger, Pax, Dude, Pilot and Chaos in various action modes — aren’t likely to find a better cinematic showcase any time soon. From a daring doggie jailbreak to multiple instances of third-act heroism, these four-legged stars should prove wildly popular with whatever auds the pic can garner.

It’s too bad the film doesn’t provide a better sense of what makes the Belgian Malinois so uniquely suited to the battlefield, or find a way to pay more than lip service to the deep bonds developed between military men and animals. By dispensing with Kyle in the first reel and centering the story on Justin, the pic automatically becomes more conventional and less interesting, long before that unnecessary swerve into action formula.

Tech credits are generally fine — and d.p. Stefan Czapsky captures one truly striking image of Justin and Max sitting together in Max’s outdoor cage watching Fourth of July fireworks — but again, the real standout goes to the dogs. Animal coordinator Mark Forbes deserves a 21-paw salute for wrangling not only six Belgian Malinois and five Rottweilers who rotate in and out of three different roles, but also the six Chihuahuas playing Carmen’s rescue dogs who show up onscreen simultaneously.

Film Review: 'Max'

Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, Calif., June 22, 2015. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 111 MIN.

Production

A Warner Bros. release presented with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures of a Sunswept Entertainment production. Produced by Karen Rosenfelt, Ken Blancato. Executive producers, Ben Ormand, Boaz Yakin.

Crew

Directed by Boaz Yakin. Screenplay, Yakin, Sheldon Lettich. Camera (Deluxe color), Stefan Czapsky; editor, Bill Pankow; music, Trevor Rabin; music supervisor, Stephanie Diaz-Matos; production designer, Kalina Ivanov; art directors, Sharon Davis, Elliott Glick; costume designer, Ellen Lutter; sound (Datasat/Dolby Digital), Jonathan Gaynor; supervising sound editors, Dror Mohar, Bob Hein; re-recording mixers, Dror Mohar, Mark Paterson; animal coordinator, Mark Forbes; visual effects supervisor, Neil Eskuri; visual effects, Double Negative; stunt coordinator-second unit director, Doug Coleman; assistant director, Rebecca Strickland; second unit camera, Jack Donnelly; casting, Ronna Kress.

With

Josh Wiggins, Thomas Haden Church, Luke Kleintank, Lauren Graham, Mia Xitlali, Dejon LaQuake, Robbie Amell, Jay Hernandez, Owen Harn, Joseph Julian Soria.

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  1. Eleanor says:

    Gotta tell you I loved this movie. Nothing wrong with a family movie even if a bit corny. The Hollywood big shots who think themselves so intelligent by making over produced nonsensical films I wouldn’t spend the 90 cents it once cost to go to a movie to see haven’t a clue.

    I guess you do have to be a lover of dogs and I am so perhaps that is what helps me to like this film. However, a good, old fashioned type story with a happy ending is why most people watch movies. We like to be entertained. When I desire real life I can live my own life or look at the lives of others or listen to our crooked politicians and the idiot celebrities who think they have something relevant to say.

    No, this story is not true, but it is dedicated to the marines and their dogs who have died in service of our country under horrific conditions. That makes the film good enough for me, and one I would recommend.
    It is presently being shown on HBO and til it came on that channel I didn’t even know the movie existed.

  2. Robert Gobar says:

    It would have been very cool, to get this paired with “American Sniper”.

  3. Terry says:

    I saw this movie yesterday and loved every minute! It was both sad and exciting! My only downside was what I considered to be the boy’s father, who seemed to act more like a step-father than a biological one. I wonder how the dog fights were filmed, which I suppose was the concern of the animal “rights” contingency.

  4. yu says:

    What? Variety is surprised there is no limit as to how low Hollywood will stoop to make a buck. They have become devoid of any new ideas, stories, concepts and are haphazardly re-hashing old themes. Although, here they failed to use the latest fad, CGI to try to make a pile of old poo look fresh. Ahmmm, Ahmmm, I’m looking in your direction Terminator, Jurassic Park, Mad Max, Insidious,…..and every time travel movie since Well’s 1960 moive The Time Machine.

  5. Laura says:

    Here’s hoping this movie at least helps raise awareness of the fact that military dogs really can and do suffer from PTSD, just like two-legged war veterans.

  6. stevenkovacs says:

    I’ll take ‘Max’ over ‘Mad Max’ anyday! 👍🏻

  7. Karen North says:

    “Max” will be the box office surprise because there has not been a great dog film of since 2006 “Eight Below”, and 2007 “Firehouse Dog”.

    There is a reason why every tv commercial seems to include a dog.

    Interesting to see if Max’s PTS is as bad as it was for the collie named Bill in 1946 “Courage of Lassie”.

    no alien robots either!

  8. mace says:

    I just seen this movie, and i disagree with the writer of this article. It was a very good movie. I enjoyed it. I give this movie five stars.

  9. I Love Dogs says:

    “American Sniffer” — funny. Thanks!!

  10. movie looks cute but corny. id rather see max than ted 2 or terminator 5.

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