Hollywood’s affinity for heroic dogs dates back to silent films. Heard of Rin Tin Tin? He was so popular that he received the most votes for the first Academy Award for best actor in 1929. The Academy thought it best to give the award to a human however. How about Lassie? Everyone knows Lassie. What’s that Lassie? Woof woof woof! Timmy fell down the well? Woof!
So how does Hollywood create a heroic dog for today’s audience? You make a throwback film, with an updated storyline. Then you get a Writer/Director Boaz Yakin, who has experience with filming dogs (Marley and Me) and who knows how to tug at the right heart strings (Remember the Titans).
Our story begins in Kandahar, Afghanistan, with Max, a Belgium Malinois (Carlos) and his handler Kyle (Robbie Amell), who are looking for weapons in a village. Max sniffs out the cache, which is hidden under the floor of one of the houses. When they return to the base, Kyles superiors ask him if he is aware that some of the weapons have gone missing. Kyle tells them that he just handles the dog. After the meeting Kyle questions his longtime friend Luke (Tyler Kleintam), whom he suspects is involved in the illegal activity.
Later Kyle chats over Skype with his mother, Pamela (Lauren Graham) and father, Ray (Thomas Haden Church) but his brother would rather play videogames than chat with his brother—or to paraphrase the film, Justin’s busy saving the universe while Kyle’s dealing with a minor insurgency. Justin resents the “hero” mentality shared between his father—a Vet with a shot up leg—and his older brother Kyle. This, along with Justin’s teenage angst, creates an uneasy relationship with his family.
Kyle is pulled away from the chat after his platoon gets called to a new village; and we all know that the shit is about to hit the fan. Max is on point and startles a suicide bomber who blows himself up knocking down our dog hero. A firefight ensues and Kyle is fatally shot by friendly fire—if you can call Luke friendly.
Back home, Max attends Kyles funeral, along with some other fellow marines; he breaks away from his restraints howling, and rushes to rest head on the top coffin—First Kleenex please. Yep, it’s manipulative, but the scene works. The family is introduced to Max and they’re told that due to Max’s PTSD, he has become uncontrollable and may have to be put down. They offer the family the dog after noticing how calm Max is around Justin. Pamela sees this as well and gladly accepts, considering Max one of the family. Papa Ray has his doubts and Justin would rather play games than accept responsibility for an emotionally damaged dog. But soon enough, with help from his mom, his pal Chuy (Dejon La Quake), and Chuy’s cousin Carmen (Mia Xitali), Justin builds a relationship of trust with Max.
There is a wonderful scene, when Justin realizes that the Fourth of July fireworks that they are watching is having an effect on Max. So he books it home and sure enough Max is pacing in his cage, extremely frightened by the noise and flashing light. Justin crawls into the cage with him and eventually calms him down. It’s rare to see a film that acknowledges the effects of war on a dog, so often it’s a human narrative. As the film carries on, Justin learns more about the relationship between Max and his late brother through a training video provided by one of the trainers—Second Kleenex please.
But while this is all very heartwarming, you can’t have dog hero without a villain: Enter Luke. He quickly wins the trust of papa Ray, bonding over the fact that both of them were wounded overseas. He also gives a fictional account of Kyle’s death, which makes Max responsible. Justin doesn’t buy Luke’s story and does a little investigating. He discovers that not only is Luke’s injury bogus, but he’s in the gun running business.
In the end Papa Ray, Justin, his Pal Chuy, new love Carmen, and of course Max, take on Luke and the crooks. All perform heroically and save the day. But there’s a moment during climax of the film where one has to really suspend their belief: Justin and Chuy ask Carmen to ride her bike out of the mountainous area to get help, but immediately after she leaves Chuy’s cell phone rings, giving away their location to the villains—they couldn’t have phoned for help?
Even with a screw up like this, it’s still hard to not enjoy Max. What separates it from others of its kind is the dog’s acting, and the way Boaz films him. Not only do the trainers get the dog to emote perfectly from scene to scene, but every shot connects the audience with what Max is feeling, making it easy to get involved with the adventure and overlook the aforementioned flubs.
The last scene has everyone merrily setting up for a family dinner, Chuy and girlfriend Carmen are also present. And corny though it may be, this is the way you end a Disney-esque throwback to the films of yesteryear.
The end credits also include pictures of war dogs through the years with their handlers, ending with photos as recent as Iraq and Afghanistan. Damn, the Kleenex box is empty.