‘Max’: Nicely done canine adventure film

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For Digital First Media

During World War I, “shell shock” arose as a diagnostic term to describe the lingering psychological effects suffered by some veterans of trench warfare. During World War II, the term was rendered obsolete by the nomenclature, “combat stress reaction.” In more recent times, “Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome” became a part of our modern parlance.

Ordinarily, such terms refer to humans. The family film, “Max,” involves a canine victim of battlefield trauma.

As the film opens, we meet Max, a bomb sniffing Belgian Malinois, attached to a frontline U.S. Marine unit in Kandahar province. He enjoys a close bond with his human handler, Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell). Together, the pair help track down enemy insurgents, roadside bombs, and contraband weaponry.

One day, Kyle skypes home to his family, who live in a Texas border town. He chats with his mom, Pamela (Lauren Graham), and dad, Ray (Thomas Haden Church). However, Kyle’s younger brother, Justin (Josh Wiggins), remains detached. He just can’t be pried away from playing video games.  We later learn that Justin makes money by selling pirated software.

Shortly thereafter, Kyle is killed in a bomb blast. Max survives, but is severely traumatized by the incident and the loss of his beloved master. He can no longer function as part of military operations.

What will become of Max? He’s scheduled to be euthanized. However, Kyle’s grieving parents decide to adopt Max. They assign Justin to take care of the dog. The self-absorbed adolescent expresses reluctance to undertake the task.  Will the two ever connect? Will having a dog change Justin?

The storyline takes a darker trajectory when one of Kyle’s platoon mates, Tyler (Luke Kleintank), returns home. He speciously contends that Max was culpable for Kyle’s death. Tyler is following in the family tradition as a small time crook. He’s selling guns, smuggled from Afghanistan, to Mexican gang members.

Thomas Haden Church provides a nuanced performance as a gruff ex-marine, who struggles with his reputation as a war hero and his paternal duties. He infuses the film with an extra dimension.

However, the real star of the film is Carlos, the well-trained canine, who plays the eponymous protagonist. He exudes a likeable screen presence and executes many stunts with impressive precision. Scenes with him, squaring off against a pair of ferocious Rottweilers, are particularly dramatic.

Boaz Yakin co-wrote the screenplay and directed the film. Previously, Yakin made an impressive debut by writing and directing, “Fresh.” That coming of age indie involved a young boy in a New York ghetto, trying to extricate him and his sister from a drug dominated milieu. “Fresh” garnered the Filmmaker’s Trophy at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival.

Yakin followed up by writing and directing, “A Price Above Rubies.” Also set in Gotham, it drew from Yakin’s own background with the Chasidic community there. “Remember the Titans” was the first time that Yakin directed a film, which he had not written. The Denzel Washington vehicle became his first box office hit.

With “Max,” Yakin returns to the coming of age genre. However, here the setting is in a contemporary, small town America, rather than the gritty city. Despite Yakin’s own urban background as a native New Yorker, he does a nice job of capturing the film’s setting.

In many regards, “Max” has the feel of an old fashioned film. However, it spurns some standard, pro-Establishment stereotypes customarily associated with this sort of family friendly work. As depicted here, not every member of the military is a virtuous warrior and not every police officer is trustworthy. “Max” also deconstructs some ethnic and gender stereotypes with a young Latina character, Carmen (Mia Xitlali).

“Max” is a touching tale about the unlikely bond that develops between a psychologically damaged pooch and a disaffected adolescent. You don’t need to be a dog lover to enjoy this film.

*** PG (for action violence, peril, brief language and some thematic elements) 111 minutes. Warner Brothers

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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