Ask any parent; nothing’s worse than a moody teenager. Try having a reasonable conversation with one. It’s like pounding a mallet against a wall of unbreakable glass; no matter how hard you try, no matter how hard you pound, you get nowhere. In the end you pound you own head trying to work out what has befuddled parents for generations – how do you get through? In the new PG family adventure Max it takes a military dog.
Max is a Belgian Shepherd, or Malinois. Like many of its breed, the Belgian Shepherd is used extensively by the police, the U.S. Secret Service and the military for its ability to detect odors – narcotics, explosives – and for the tracking of humans. They’re the breed that guards the White House. Max is a Marine.
Since a pup, Max has trained with U.S. Marine Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell). The bond between handler and dog is unique. They’re practically inseparable. Max will do whatever Kyle orders, such is the total level of trust. While in Afghanistan, Max’s job, under Kyle’s direction, is of paramount importance. He goes ahead of the platoon and makes sure the coast is clear. He can also sniff out a hidden cache of ammunition, which is exactly what he does.
But during one certain exercise, something goes wrong. A surprise enemy attack results with Kyle’s death, and it traumatizes Max. Plus, there’s something else. It’s difficult to tell exactly what happened at the moment Kyle fell but circumstances definitely look murky, and it puts another marine, Tyler (Luke Kleintank) under a cloud of suspicion. Writer/director Boaz Yakin does a fine job of staging the events in a way that creates mystery. We can see that something happened to cause Kyle’s death, and it had something to do with Tyler, but we’re not quite sure what.
Max returns to the U.S. but continues to grieve for his handler. He can’t function. He responds to no one. It’s only when Kyle’s family visits the dog in captivity that Max’s temperament suddenly changes. Instinctively, he knows that moody teenager Justin (Josh Wiggins) is Kyle’s brother and he responds accordingly.
From the there, Max takes off on the old fashioned, family adventure you went in expecting. Max and Justin bond, Justin’s moody shell is eventually broken, and the dog is fully embraced by the family. But before all of that happens there’s the case of older brother Kyle’s death and the cloudy circumstances of exactly what happened over in Afghanistan. Plus, when Kyle’s marine buddy, Tyler, returns to the U.S. and visits the family to pay his respects, why is Max growling and showing his teeth?
There’s no way Max can fail. With its early scenes of military life in Afghanistan, then its stateside teenage adventure, complete with youngsters on bikes in peril, the mystery of Kyle’s death and a nail-biting climax of bravery, sacrifice and a dog who will do anything to protect Kyle’s younger brother, Max is like a Disney family adventure but with an extra hard edge. It may have the conventions of family adventures we’ve seen before – the stern dad (Thomas Haden Church) who doesn’t always understand, the sympathetic mom (Lauren Graham) who tries to understand, the moody teenager with the short fuse who understands nothing but will learn, and an adventurous climax where you’re not quite sure if the dog was hurt or not – but it doesn’t matter; it all works. Plus, the dog is great.
It’s no secret that an actor’s performance can rise or fall depending on how the film is cut and put together. Bill Pankow’s editing and Boaz Yakin’s direction are certainly major factors – Max is arguably one of the best dog/adventure movies made – but Max himself appears extraordinarily well trained. From the beginning you’re on the dog’s side. The moment when Max can’t be stopped from running to his handler’s coffin at the church service is a heartbreaker, and when mom observes the arrival of the police to collect Max, she interrupts a father/son confrontation and states, “Guys, they’re going to kill Max,” the audience at the preview screening audibly gasped.
Plus, there’s something else to consider and this has everything to do with relatable characters, effective story-telling, a rhythm that includes both highs and lows, and efficient movie-making. There are no special effects to speak of, no fantasy super heroes that fly, no buildings exploding, and even better, thankfully no 3D, yet the final fifteen minutes of Max, even without all those big screen ‘wow’ factors, still has you biting your nails. Max the dog may be an earthbound superhero but for the family audience, Max the movie delivers. Semper Fidelis indeed.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 111 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)