Max concerns a military dog of the same name, a Belgian Malinois, who returns home from his service traumatized by the death of Kyle Wilcott (Robbie Amell), his former handler. The Wilcott family, made up of the stern, military-minded father Robbie (Thomas Haden Church), the softspoken mother Pamela (Lauren Graham), and their younger, surviving son Justin (Josh Wiggins), accept the responsibility to take care of the dog when it becomes unfit to work in combat. Max, while apprehensive and ostensibly wired to attack when seeing anybody who isn’t his handler, takes a liking to Justin almost instinctively, and Justin winds up bearing a great deal of the responsibility in training him, getting the help of his best friend Chuy (Dejon LaQuake) and his cousin Carmen (Mia Xitlali).
Meanwhile, Kyle’s surviving squadmate Tyler (Luke Kleintank) returns home, claiming he obtained severe injuries from the explosion that killed Kyle which resulted in heavy amounts of shrapnel in his back and spine. However, Justin, his pals, and Max know he’s hiding something, as he is in cahoots with a local firearms dealer and informs Robbie that Kyle died because Max turned on him in combat. With the help of Max, Justin needs to prove that not only is Kyle’s pet a loyal one, but Tyler is also in on shady, illegal business at the expense of his fallen brother.
Max is destined to be one of the family crowdpleasers of the summer; it has all the right components to make families smile, laugh, tear up, and applaud. In America, we seem to like our war stories told with high doses of saccharine sentimentality and emotion and Max delivers that to a notable fault. I’ve always loathed cheap, emotional manipulation in films, be it through overly obvious lines, cloying orchestration, or situations that feel like nothing more than cheap pathos. Max always tries to circumvent to get the audience to feel something grand and, in doing so, undermines the inherent emotional value of this story at hand.
What Max doesn’t do too much of, until its quietly obnoxious end scene, is include the kind of cheap, flag-waving nationalism that only seems fit following national tragedies. Whenever the film seems to detour down that route, be it showcasing a parade or having Justin’s father Robbie harp on his duty as a Marine, screenwriters Sheldon Lettich and director Boaz Yakin correct themselves to have the story focus more on the characters and their difficult predicaments rather than narrow their sights on the obvious American flag praising.
Yet Max was something I really wasn’t expecting and that something was its consistent value as summer entertainment. Throughout its entire runtime, Max is never boring, flowing with kinetic energy, making good use of its central characters without introducing too many, and housing two strong central performances. First and foremost, Josh Wiggins handles Justin’s character perfectly, complete with the sporadic sighs, lack of eye contact, and introversion that gets mistaken for stubbornness. Such an attitude brings out the worst characteristics of Robbie, who is given great life by Thomas Haden Church. Church gives a strong performance of the kind of father who’s experiences in the Marines defined him as a person so much so that he can’t understand why anybody else wouldn’t think or act like him. Church has it all in his look and tone of voice, summoning fright in anyone who dares question his authority.
Max is a hot mess of a film, but it’s a hot mess that will nonetheless find itself an audience made up of dog lovers, war movie lovers, and family movie lovers. It’s hard enough for a film to nail one of those demographics, but to do all three means there’s a serious tonal and structural cacophony at work, which there admittedly is here. Solid performances across the board and a strong resonance of entertainment work to prevail here, but not enough to disguise the inevitable emotional manipulation and incredulity taking place here. There’s fun to be had and tears to be shed, although those tears would be better suited on the floors of theaters showing Pixar’s Inside Out instead.