Who’s a good dog? Max is a good dog. He can sit, stay, beg, bark, obey orders, follow his leader, search for contraband, find missing persons, track suspects, sniff out bombs, serve in the military, escape bad guys, fight off meaner dogs, take down an international smuggling conspiracy, save hostages, and bring a grieving family closer together by loving them as only man’s best friend can. Sounds like a good dog to me. The movie in which he stars, played by a handsome Belgian Malinois named Carlos, is a slice of schmaltzy Americana, flag-waving, manipulative and corny as all get out. It’s a movie intent on pushing buttons with sentimentality, easy suspense, and simple uplift. But at least Max proves himself one of the most uncomplicatedly likable heroes you’ll see at the movies this summer. Who couldn’t like a dog this sweet and tough?
We meet Max in Afghanistan, on patrol with his until. There his handler (Robbie Amell) is killed. The dog is returned stateside where he’s diagnosed with a bad case of canine post-traumatic stress disorder. By this point we’ve already met the family of the fallen soldier, seen the funeral where the dog sits in front of the coffin and refuses to leave. You’d have to be made of stone not to feel the tug of heartstrings, since the movie’s working so hard to yank them there. So, since Max has been declared no longer fit for duty, the family adopts him. They’re mourning the same man. Through the presence of the pooch, the family – a gruff dad (Thomas Haden Church), sweet sad mom (Lauren Graham) and sullen teenage boy (Josh Wiggins) – slowly works through grief while learning to live with this new companion.
That’s surprisingly heavy stuff for a kids’ animal adventure. This glossy, earnest look at a mourning family has some sincere intent to focus on the plight of soldiers and their families’ through a dog’s-eye view. I liked this aspect of the movie, as the boy and dog learn to trust each other and the family starts to work through emotional trauma, the boy’s father growing distant, his mother quick to cry, his friends (comic relief Dejon LaQuake and love interest Mia Xitlali) the only ones ready to help him train the dog. Soft, bright cinematography keeps things feeling safe and comfortable even when dealing with pain. There’s always a feeling things will work out just fine. I mean just look at that dog, good at growling, panting away, chuffed to be sniffing and barking and going for walks and chewing on his toys. Maybe one day they’ll let him in the house.
But right when the movie seems to be narrowing in on the sensitive emotional terrain of the family, it becomes another movie. Writer-director Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans) and co-writer Sheldon Lettich (of Stallone and Van Damme pictures) really want to underline this dog’s heroism as a salute to military dogs everywhere. They get Max and his boy involved in a crime thriller about a crooked soldier smuggling arms to drug cartels south of the border. The dog recognizes one of the culprits and ends up leading his new family down a dangerous path ending in a red-meat satisfying boom-pow conclusion pushing the edge of the PG rating with fights and stunts out of proportion with the smaller, sweeter, sadder story pushed to the margins. There are some nice twists, and its reasonably involving on a dumb level. But I wondered why it was there.
Maybe it’s best to think of Max not as a socially conscious boy-and-his-dog picture, but as a canine version of The Rock's Walking Tall. It’s a story of a veteran who returns home psychologically wounded by war, then needs to clean up his small town’s crime problem. The veteran here just happens to be a dog. Over the end credits, we’re told military pooches have a proud tradition. We see photos of various dogs in various wars, and are shown statistics as to how many have died for our country. It’s a nice sentiment, and the movie, all apple-pie, bike rides, Fourth of July, and fireworks, looks at an interesting subset of military service. And yet, I couldn’t shake dissatisfaction as a great dog – and some great dog acting, with perfect reaction shots, fun stunts, and reasonably believable action – was pressed into clunky formula. Wouldn’t the family-friendly canine remake of Best Years of Our Lives or Coming Home it occasionally is be more interesting?