REVIEW WRITTEN BY JOCELYN NOVECK,
AP National Writer
It’s officially summer. What better time for a heartwarming caper movie about a troubled but noble Texas teen, his troubled but noble dog, and those crazy mean gun smugglers they tangle with?
Yes, we said crazy mean gun smugglers. Mexican cartels, too. If that doesn’t sound like normal PG-rated fare to you, well, you’re right, there’s nothing too normal about “Max.” Billed as a family adventure, this movie is probably best described as a mix of “Lassie” and “No Country for Old Men.” It’s like they invited the Coen brothers — or maybe Quentin Tarantino — to script a few scenes of a “Dora the Explorer” episode.
We could go on with the analogies, but let’s just say that there are still some people who’ll appreciate “Max,” directed and co-written by Boaz Yakin, because they love dogs, and thus any film about a good dog is a worthwhile endeavor. And the dog IS good. But beware: This is No Movie for Little Kids.
We begin in Afghanistan, where Max (a Belgian Malinois, actually played by four pooches) is a highly trained military dog, performing risky searches alongside his devoted handler, U.S. Marine Kyle Wincott. We see Max singlehandedly locate a Taliban weapons cache in a secret compartment in a home. But then tragedy strikes, and Kyle is killed.
Back in Texas, the Wincott family — Mom Pamela (Lauren Graham, totally underused), Dad Ray (Thomas Haden Church) and teenager Justin (Josh Wiggins) — are grieving at the funeral when they meet Max, who, heartbreakingly, knows his boss is in the coffin. Max, understandably, is suffering from trauma, and is hard to handle. He only seems calm around Justin; he senses the boy is Kyle’s brother. The family brings the dog home.
At first, Justin, sensitively portrayed by the sweet-faced, soulful Wiggins, wants no part of training a dog. He’s obsessed with video games, and resentful of his father, who he feels has always favored hero Kyle. He’d rather stay in his room than manage a growling canine. But the movie dispenses with all that pretty quickly. Soon, Justin and Max are fast friends, nursing each other through tough times. Spicing things up a bit is a love interest for Justin, the plucky Carmen (Mia Xitlali), cousin of Justin’s buddy Chuy (Dejon LaQuake), a typical movie best bud whose every line is, like, yo, more clichéd than the next.
And then things get really strange.
Trouble comes in the form of Tyler Harne (Luke Kleintank), Kyle’s childhood buddy and fellow Marine, back from Afghanistan. We already knew that Tyler was up to some nefarious activity in the war zone, involving disappearing guns, but we learn the true nature of his troublesome dealings when he’s back home, and hitting up Ray for a job. As in many kid movies, the kid understands what’s going on a lot quicker than the parents. Ray thinks Tyler’s a good guy. Justin knows otherwise.
Soon, Justin, Max, Carmen and Chuy are off on a mystery-solving adventure in the woods — just three kids, a couple bikes, and a dog. It’s just that a bunch of guys with serious firepower are after them — and, as the Wicked Witch of the West would say, their little dog, too (actually he’s not so little, but still.) It’s indeed heartwarming to watch Max’s heroics, and Wiggins is appealing. Still, as you’re saying “Aw,” and even tearing up a few times — a heroic military dog? How could you not? — you may also be saying something else out loud, too, as this plot goes haywire:
“Really? What were they thinking?”
“Max,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America “for action violence, peril, brief language and some thematic elements.” Running time: 111 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.