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A Boy and His War Dog

Warner Brothers
 111 Minutes
Rated: PG
Directed by: Boaz Yakin
Starring: Josh Wiggins, Thomas Haden Church 

I’ve come to the conclusion that certain types of movies are incapable of being totally bad. For some reason, any movie set on a train has to be, at the least, passably decent. Similarly, any movie featuring a dog can’t be completely bad, simply because you can’t really dislike any dog who has a significant role in a film. So, it should come as no surprise that, as long as the new release Max sticks to its core story of a disgruntled teenager and the dog he inherits, it’s pretty decent entertainment. But once it gets beyond scenes involving its four-footed titular star, the movie loses focus quickly.


Max (a Belgian Malinois) is a Marine Corps combat dog, who’s been trained by his handler Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell) to sniff out enemy arms caches in Afghanistan. In fact, Max is better at sniffing out trouble than Kyle is, since the Marine dies under somewhat suspicious circumstances in a firefight. Naturally, Ray and Pamela Wincott (Thomas Haden Church and Lauren Graham) are devastated by the news, but younger brother Justin (Josh Wiggins) retreats even more into the video games that he’s made his entire life. Justin has a lot of pent up anger at his father, who served in the first Gulf War, and guilt and anger about Kyle.


At Kyle’s funeral, Justin meets Max, who is also having difficulty readjusting and lashes out at anyone who gets near him. But when Justin is able to placate Max, Ray convinces the Marines to let them take Max rather than put the dog down. Justin and Max soon bond together, and Max seems to be readjusting well until Kyle’s former squadmate and friend Tyler (Luke Kleintank) shows up following his own discharge from the Marines. 


Max is the sort of movie where Max is smarter than the kids and the kids in turn are smarter than the adults. So, while Tyler is able to sweet talk Ray into giving him a job, Max turns on the ex-Marine immediately and has to be restrained. Justin also smells a rat and, along with his pal Chuy (Dejon LaQuake) and his cousin Carmen (Mia Xitlali), figures out that Tyler is involved in gunrunning and selling weapons to a Mexican drug cartel. Ray eventually figures the truth out the hard way, when he is captured by Tyler after discovering Tyler has been using the self-storage facility Ray owns to stash his weapons. So, now Justin and Max, with some help from Chuy and Carmen, have to rescue Ray and put an end to Tyler’s gunrunning ring.


Director Boaz Yakin, who co-wrote the script, has only had one real success in his career, Remember the Titans, and he tries to recreate that same insprirational family film vibe here. He only half succeeds. The screenplay raises a number of serious issues about war and its somewhat unusual effects on this particular family. Eventually, viewers learn that Ray’s service in the first Gulf War did not end well, as he was wounded by friendly fire. Ray’s leg was crippled, but his pride was hurt even worse when details of the incident got out and people questioned his heroism.


When the second Gulf War begins, Kyle joins the Marines, where his father served. The screenplay raises the questions of why Kyle enlisted, but, since his character is not around for most of the film, it can never answer them. Kyle’s enlisting does affect Justin, who becomes a virtual video game recluse in his own home as a result. The dynamic that the script sets up in Max is intriguing, and could have formed the basis for a good movie without any canine involvement. However, Yakin does not try to resolve that conflict internally, but instead resorts to having a four-footed deus ex machina save the day for the Wincott family.


Max’s other characterizations are quite shallow. Graham is reduced to being a one-note supporting Mom, while LaQuake is the generic wise-cracking sidekick. The script hints at giving Kleintank more depth as a conflicted villain but in the big action sequence, he winds up doing exactly what would be expected. Even Justin, the largest role in the film and well played by the likable Wiggins, often seems to change character from scene to scene arbitrarily as needed by the film. Yes, his development is a key element of the movie, but the back-and-forths are a bit too convenient.


Take away the war movie trappings, however, and Max is a tried and true boy-and-his-dog adventure movie, and a well made one at that. The canine Max (as in most movies of this nature, played by several different dogs) looks quite impressive running, jumping, fighting Rottweilers and humans, and grudgingly bonding with Wiggins. Unlike many dog films, Max does nothing overly cutesy to endear himself to the audience. However, the action stunts are dazzling enough.


The script goes a bit far on several occasions in portraying Max’s intelligence. Supposedly, Max is able to tell that Tyler is a bad guy based merely on some hidden vibe the character gives off. Even more incredibly, Max is able to plan out traps for his pursuers (in one case luring a Rottweiler into a pit from which the other dog can’t escape) that would make human soldiers envious. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t dwell on Max’s anthropomorphic character traits.


Max ends with a fairly lengthy and well executed action sequence, pitting Max, Justin, and Ray against Tyler and his cohorts. The action is surprisingly intense for a PG-rated film, but it gives Max maximum opportunity to display his skills (one bit of business that was probably beyond the capabilities of the actual dogs used in the film is conveniently not shown on screen).


Movies like Max generally pull shamelessly at the heartstrings, and Max does make the effort. However, both the funeral scenes and the finale are somewhat underwhelming emotionally. Audiences will naturally be happy for Max and his new human family, but Max lacks the real emotional impact the best movies of this type have. The movie aspires to say something truly meaningful about families and war, as well as about boys and dogs, but only clearly connects with its viewers as a generic family action film with a very clever dog. 

Read other reviews of Max:


Max (2015) on IMDb