If there’s even a little bit of a cynic in you, then prepare to be at war with yourself watching Max. On one hand, this is a heartfelt, innocent family film with solid life lessons. On the other hand, it’s so cliché, corny, and manipulative. If you’ve ever seen a movie about a boy and his dog before then you’ve seen Max. It’s Lassie, it’s Old Yeller, it’s My Dog Skip. Now to be fair, if you’re in the mood for a nice little hallmark movie about man’s best friend, Max is perfectly serviceable… at least for its first half.
The boy in this movie is newcomer Justin Wincott (Josh Wiggins), a millennial who’s disrespectful towards his parents and would rather play video games than get a summer job. Tragedy strikes Justin’s family when his older brother, Kyle, dies in Afghanistan. He leaves behind a Belgian Shepherd military dog named Max, who takes a quick liking to young Justin. When Max becomes unfit to serve in combat anymore, it’s decided that he should go live with Kyle’s family. Justin is reluctant to take care of a dog at first, but of course they come together and have a meaningful relationship.
The people in Justin’s life are entirely comprised of the stock characters we’d expect to see in a movie such as this: There’s his supportive mother (Lauren Graham), stern father (Thomas Haden Church), stereotypical Mexican best friend (Dejon LaQuake), and a love interest who’s apparently related to the dog whisperer (Mia Xitlali). While these people are all archetypes, the performances are universally strong. Newcomer Wiggins in particular does a commendable job at portraying the grief of losing his brother and plays off all the other humans wonderfully. His interactions with Max are even stronger as they confide in each other over their mutual loss. Sure, their rapport may be kind of cheesy, but it feels genuine nonetheless.
What doesn’t feel genuine is the film’s second half when Justin and Max get involved with a crooked veteran selling weapons to a cartel. This is where Max switches gears from being a pleasant boy and his dog story to being a lazy action picture with chases, kidnappings, and shootouts. The screenwriters apparently felt the narrative needed more conflict, but did it really? Isn’t the loss of a loved one and post-traumatic stress disorder enough baggage to carry a movie? Granted, the conflict would be more internal than external. If Inside Out proved anything, though, it’s that internal conflict can be quite fascinating, even in a family picture.
Max would have worked a lot better had it taken a page from Marley & Me, which didn’t rely on one-note villains or an action climax to force drama. It basically just showed a dog living its life with its owners and… that’s it. Sometimes a movie doesn’t require anything more than simply showing life play out. For a film that wants to address many real world problems, Max often feels incredibly detached from reality.
There’s no denying that this movie’s heart is in the right place. It only desires to inspire and raise awareness about military canines, all of which are true unsung war heroes. Having a good message doesn’t automatically equal a good movie, however. It needs to also be smart, sincere, and present its familiar morals in a unique way. Max comes close to accomplishing this thanks to its capable actors and a few standout warm moments. Ultimately, though, it’s about as repetitive and misguided as a dog chasing its own tail.