Between the heady empathy of Pixar’s latest, the ripped from the feel-good-headlines documentary Batkid Begins, and the Marine mutt melodrama Max, June has provided an oasis of fresh squeezed tears amidst the usual dry heat of summer blockbuster season. Batkid has heartwarming facts in his pint-sized utility belt, and Inside Out has Pixar. Against that competition, even an adorable animal vehicle like Max might seem grossly overmatched. But there’s a surprising spryness to this old chestnut of a family picture that makes Max more than just a delivery system for cute and patriotic imagery, roughly in equal measure.
The film stars the e-paw-nymous Max (Carlos), a Belgian Shepard and USMC service animal. It’s his doggy duty to run point for his handler, Kyle Wincott (Robbie Ammell), a fellow Marine stationed in Kandahar. Thanks to his heightened senses and rigorous training, Max, like other service animals, gives American infantry an extra edge against enemy combatants. Had the movie been retitled American Sniffer and stuck to its original January 30th release date, this Max would likely have given 2015’s more temperamental Max a run for his money at the box office.
But then we’d have plenty of people disappointed that beneath the exterior of a Lone Furvivor tale of military heroism lies a vanilla coming of age story about a boy and his dog. When Kyle is killed in action, the shell shocked Max is taken into the suburban Texas home of the bereaved Wincott family. Max takes a shining to Kyle’s disaffected lay-about of a younger brother, Justin (Josh Wiggins), who’s too busy being a cynical, teenage ingrate to appreciate the virtues of loyalty and sacrifice that his Desert Storm veteran father (Thomas Haden Church) is always going on about.
Unlike everything else from the ‘90s, canine companionship movies have been in short supply of late. In 2015, there’s a certain novelty to stories about the healing power of man’s best friend. Granted, the bust following the boom of 20 years ago owes in part to the traditional hallmarks of every animal tale ranging from Old Yeller to Cats & Dogs. Between 2008’s litter of Marley & Me, Bolt, and Beverly Hills Chihuahua, it’s not as though we’ve grown completely unfamiliar with all the tricks a movie about a loveable dog has to offer.
Max is part of the first camp, a straightforward tale of personal growth through ownership and responsibility. What separates it from the breed of bildungsroman found in the likes of a My Dog Skip is its sense of place within the modern, warring America of today. Before the producing and closing credits, title cards stress the involvement of military working dogs in the U.S. army. There’s a respect with which Max wants to treat its subject matter that rarely jibes with the antics featured in most movies with a four-legged star. Unsurprisingly, writer-director Boaz Yakin has some difficulty reconciling the half of Max that’s a tribute to military service men, women, and animals, and the half that’s a family-friendly adventure tale.
The potential for Max to resemble a hawk more than a dog is largely avoided by Yakin’s astute script. There’s no mistaking the overall leanings of the film, but those anticipating a resolutely flag-waving tribute to all things America won’t get one. No, there’s no subversive political debate in Max that sneaks in through the dog door, but it does pick key moments and characters to softly question the myth of the American war hero. The film’s ultimate takeaways are unmistakable, but it takes a kind of courage to introduce a few shades of grey to a story rooted in the value of particular American ideals.
That versatility of perspective allows Yakin to take Max in some directions that are, well, kind of absurd, while still sticking to the well-worn thematic playbook it doggedly follows. A third act featuring cartel hostages and gunrunners might seem like a betrayal of the simple, downhome stories Max is meant to be reviving, but the drama still allows for clearly delineated good guys and bad guys, and action that exculpates those good guys from any moral wrongdoing. Lessons are learned, boys become men, and depending on how much that means to you, Yanik won’t even need to bust out the puppy dog eyes to get you to say “aww.”
Other attempts Max makes to modernize the formula are welcome, if less successful; a self-possessed Latina love interest for Justin (Mia Xitlali) is sidelined late in the game for dumb reasons, while her loudmouth cousin (Dejon LaQuake) shows hints of a personality buried deep beneath a comic relief caricature. The real star, of course, is Max, and if my screening is to be believed, any issues of subtext or plain text won’t matter much when you’re looking at footage of cute puppies and doggies. Yanik can’t shake up this kind of story too much –an ossified skeleton is hereditary to these kinds of movies. But you try worrying about that when Max is staring at you with those big brown peepers.
Like its four-legged hero, Max makes for a serviceable source of warm and fuzzy feelings.