Yes, there’s something pure-blooded about wanting to give war dogs their inevitable best in show in multiplexes. Frankly, every dog deserves its day. They’re loyal compatriots, dumb yet brave, sweet, and fierce. But to be perfectly honest, Boaz Yakin’s Max is too ruff around the edges to instill any major sense of empathy, patriotism, or gravitas. Max tries to sell family-friendly Alpo, but feels like we’re being fed a handful of undercooked scraps under the table. As family-friendly entertainment, does Max screw the pooch? A little bit. Should Max be buried amidst the dog days of summer cinema? Sure. Are there bones to pick with this sort of treacly crowd-pleasing bunk? You bet.
It’s a dog’s life, and Max is about a Belgian Malinois of the same name. He’s a former top-dog Marine animal re-adjusting to domestic life in suburban Texas. After years of sniffing out weapons and doggedly pursuing evildoers in times of war, Max watched his trainer and best friend die in combat, and as such is suffering from PTSD. His master was Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell), a private in the military that loved Max very much. But when Kyle goes to doggie heaven, Max is left alone to grieve, unleashing some beastly emotions. Max howls, yaps, and is quickly turning into one bad dog. But Max is rescued by Kyle’s family, and they want Max to let go of his emotional dogs of war, and just be able to sit, stay, and be a normal canine companion. Woof, the volume of saccharine is extreme here.
Max learns some new tricks, feels like a good boy again, and adjusts to family life as he bonds with Kyle’s teenage brother Justin (Josh Wiggins). This familial love and rejuvenating presence suggests that Max is truly one lucky dog. But ruh-roh, sleeping dogs never get to lie, and Kyle’s bad-boy buddy and former co-marine Tyler (Luke Kelintank) digs up trouble in the form of arms smuggling from Afghanistan — and hot dog, Max turns into a caper! Inevitably, it’s up to Max and Justin to put Tyler down. There are so many disparate stories, and such heavy pretense that Max is a tribute to combat dogs, the film feels like it’s constantly trying to put viewers off the film’s sickly-sweet scent.
In short, this movie bites.
Max is a mongrel of ill-conceived ideas, tones, and moods. It’s not that the film barks up the wrong tree, but rather up too many trees. At once it wants to be a jingoistic, “the pride is back”, dog-and-pony show about the heroics of canines bred and trained to work like, well, dogs for the armed forces. It starts as the American Sniper of dog movies, with Max going for a stoic walk down dangerous Afghani corridors, looking for weapons and possible attackers. But then, when Max is damaged by war, Max turns into a sort of Scooby-Doo/Hardy Boys underdog story about a boy and his pet trying to emotionally redeem themselves by fighting crime and being silly.
Throw in a couple of ill-advised and graphic dog fights, some casual Mexican stereotyping, and a mawkish sense of duty and militaristic honor within the boundaries of a PG rating (montages of dogs with gas masks set to sappy country music?) and you have a film that wags and chases too many tails for two long hours that ultimately go nowhere. In the end, Max doesn’t hunt.