‘Max’ Review: Bred on the Fourth of July
We’re not even a half hour into the patriotic bonanza that is Max before the title character, a heroic Marine Corps. dog, shows up at his fallen comrade’s funeral and lays his head down upon the star-spangled casket, striving without shame to break all of our hardened hearts. It’s a calculated manipulation that reaches hitherto unknown heights of maudlin, and it’ll either set your eyes a-rollin’ or hit you right in your all-American gut.
Max is an unapologetic melodrama, with fireworks and teary-eyed speeches and kids jumping over ravines on bicycles with a beloved dog by their side. It’s a film about growing up and fighting smugglers, and on multiple occasions a handgun is pointed at the canine’s head by someone who genuinely wants to pull the trigger. It has more cheese and corn than a particularly loaded quesadilla, but it’s also not “bad.”
That may seem like a contradiction, but while watching films like Max it behooves us to remember that there is sometimes a big difference between “good” and “effective.” Max is not trying to be a plausible and nuanced motion picture, it’s trying to be a broad emotional experience, and tugging at the heartstrings isn’t always a delicate process. Sometimes just plain yanking gets the job done. And is there anything more yankee than ending your film with a shot of a war dog memorial, placed right in front of a bright waving flag?
Josh Wiggins plays Justin Wincott, a slacker teenager with no respect for his ex-Marine father Ray (Thomas Haden Church) or his noble brother Kyle (Robbie Amell). When Kyle dies in a firefight, his canine partner Max (Carlos) is traumatized and won’t work with anybody else. So the family decides to adopt Max and Justin ends up being responsible for training him, a process that changes Justin for the better because dogs are awesome, obviously.
That would have been enough for a Hallmark Original Movie, but then Max kicks into high gear when Kyle’s friend Tyler (Luke Kleintank) returns home from the war with a completely B.S. story about an honorable discharge and a devious plan to sell guns to a nearby Mexican cartel. Max doesn’t trust Tyler, so Tyler schemes to get the dog out of the way by convincing Ray that Max was responsible for his son’s death.
Why, exactly, Tyler thinks that Max is a threat is never really explained, since it’s not like the dog can testify against him, but Max is the kind of movie that just likes to threaten dogs. They teach you in screenwriting class that if you want your audience to hate a character you should just make them kick a dog, and that’s kind of this whole movie, which is full of dog-hating bad guys and dog-loving good guys and culminates in the sort of ludicrous over the top action sequence that would make Chuck Norris proud.
So Max is not a subtle film. But sometimes subtlety isn’t necessary, and a patriotic movie about a dog returning home from war and rescuing his adopted family from bad guys selling missile launchers probably wouldn’t benefit from having the nonsense toned down. Max is absolute propaganda, but it’s mostly harmless and genuinely watchable and probably healthier for all of us than the comparable rah-rah jingoism of Act of Valor or American Sniper. Give me American Sniffer any day.