Max review

American Sniper meets Lassie? We take a look at Max, which has quietly slipped into UK cinemas...

It feels like the dog movie might have had its day. Although we still get a few films every now and then where a canine performer plays a pivotal character, this once-booming genre bracket is largely reserved for the booming direct-to-video market- Disney’s Air Buddies spin-off franchise is going strong and as of 2014, the Beethoven saga is up to its eighth instalment (and its fifth to skip cinemas.)

The unusual logline for Max appears to be ‘American Sniper meets Lassie‘, but it’s not without charm. With staggering earnestness, it plays out the tale of a Belgian Malinois called Max, (played by Carlos) whose US Marine handler Kyle (Robbie Amell) is killed in action while apprehending a suicide bomber during Operation Enduring Freedom.

Brought back to the States from Afghanistan, Max has suffered from PTSD since the incident and is due to be put down, until Kyle’s family takes him in. Father and fellow veteran Ray (Thomas Haden Church) foists Max on his youngest son Justin (Josh Wiggins) to teach him about responsibility. Over time, the boy helps to rehabilitate the dog, while the dog helps the boy to grow up.

But the human coming-of-age aspect is really the B-plot of the movie and, as the title suggests, the lead character is really the character on a lead. The recent Hungarian drama White God experimented with a similar approach to a pooch protagonist with very different intentions and to much greater critical success, and while Max is nothing like as subversive as the Cannes Film Festival favourite, it’s similarly elevated by the performance of the canine Carlos.

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However, as it’s usually advisable to let humans pen scripts, writers Boaz Yakin and Sheldon Lettich haven’t really crafted a story that lives up to their star. Yakin, who also directs the film, is known for sports drama Remember The Titans and, more recently, The Statham’s Safe. Here, he starts out the film cloying for every ounce of sympathy he can wring from his audience, with mixed results.

For instance, depending on your tolerance for sad dogs, a shot of the faithful hound pawing at his late handler’s flag-covered coffin may cause eyes to roll, rather than leak. Meanwhile, a later viewing of footage of Kyle training Max is far more touching in its understatement. But rather than going with the courage of its conviction and sad-dogging us for the duration, the film soon segues into adventurous heroics in the face of some ludicrously serious antagonists.

As Justin, Josh Wiggins handles what could have been an ignominious second fiddle role with aplomb, although his character arc makes Yakin and Lettich fly their colours relatively early on. Wearing a ‘Murica shirt that he bought with money earned from his sideline of pirating video games and waxing sceptical about the war, our first sight of Justin is hardly that of a patriotic and proud brother.

Once the dog turns up and Justin’s dad, (a taciturn Church) opts to lock him up in the backyard, it looks as if Justin’s burgeoning liberal tendencies will overcome his initial reluctance and show a better way to help Max adjust than his father can offer. He does prove better at it, but it more often looks like the dog is training the boy.

Then, when one villainous sort makes an impassioned plea for realism, (read: ‘realism’ as ‘criminal selfishness and treachery’) in the face of impeccable loyalty and heroism, the film’s outlook and stakes are laid bare in one stroke. Comparatively low as these stakes are, Max must make a patriot of young Justin by the time Blake Shelton’s achingly sincere theme song heralds the end credits.

It’s also deeply unfortunate that all but one of the characters of colour in the film are either criminals or related to criminals. Those aforementioned antagonists come from ‘over the border’ but would be more at home in Breaking Bad than a Lassie movie. Their tenuous connection to the Taliban only redoubles their oddness. That said, it’s impossible to hold the film’s weird choices against young stars Mia Xitlali and Dejon LaQuake, who are both very charismatic as Justin’s intrepid friends, feisty Carmen and useless Chuy, in the face of very stereotypical portrayals.

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Along with the 12A certificate, the subject matter makes it slightly family-unfriendly, but not overwhelmingly so. The BBFC are right to mark the film above a PG for the threat and violence that ensues, in scenes both foreign and domestic, but if Stand By Me (a film which is implicitly referenced in the bombastic final setpiece) can be edited down for daytime consumption on Channel 5, we wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where you see this one for the first time too.

Max is inoffensive to a fault, but its outlandish earnestness and strong turns by its young cast and canine star make it weirdly likeable. It ladles sentimentality all over the shop in trying to sell a veterans’ movie to dog lovers of all ages and we suspect it will find its audience once it slides effortlessly into that inevitable Sunday afternoon broadcast slot.

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3 out of 5