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.