Josh Wiggins and Max (a.k.a. Carlos) in Max
If you’ve seen one dog movie, you’ve probably seen them all, and Boaz Yakin‘s (Remember the Titans) red-blooded, family-friendly military feature Max isn’t going to give you much of anything you haven’t seen before. There are dog antics, petty kids coming into their own through their new animal friends, family drama and an obvious villain who just can’t have a dog mucking up their plans. It’s repetitive, it’s lazy, it’s narratively tired and plain-faced, but, most of all, it’s just plain boring.
But it’s also entirely inoffensive — save for some cringe-worthy Mexican stereotypes — and it’s hard to necessarily get mad at a film as vanilla as this. It’s tacky, but it’s almost like kicking a dog. Literally. As overlong and overplayed as Yakin’s movie is, it wears its purebred, red, white and blue intentions on its sleeve, and causing an uproar won’t do anyone any good. Good or bad, Max has an audience, just don’t count me among them.
After being proudly informed about the 3,000-plus canines serving U.S. military tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, we meet our pooch protagonist, Max (Carlos). He and his owner Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell) walk among the haggard Disney-ized trenches of modern warfare, searching for weapons and doing their country proud in Afghanistan. But their daily struggles are not the central focus of our movie. Before we even get to know Kyle, we’re thrown directly into the life of the actual main character, Justin (Josh Wiggins), Kyle’s whiny, wise-ass younger brother. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t appreciate the military’s hard-earned efforts and re-prints video games illegally and distributes them across this neighborhood. So you know he’s bad news.
But when tragedy strikes their family, which includes his doe-eyed mother Pamela (Lauren Graham) and tough-hearted veteran father Ray (Thomas Haden Church), Kyle unwilling gains custody and care of his late brother’s best friend. And through this titular dog will he and his family — along with the help of fellow pre-teen Carmen (Mia Xitlali) and the cousin to his best friend Chuy (Dejon LaQuake) — become better people, stronger as a family and, well, you know the drill.
It’s your typical Lifetime-esque heart-warmer. The only thing all that different is the added gun-affairs, man-on-man violence and criminal activity that oddly comes into play during the third act. The source of this is Carmen and Chuy’s bad-news, blood-link Emilio (Joseph Julian Soria), as well as Kyle’s recently-deployed war buddy Tyler (Luke Kleintank), and by the time they cause unrest for the main characters with their nefarious activities around town, the movie’s still as dull and uninviting as it was before. This is because, be it Cop Dog, Firehouse Dog, Homeward Bound, the multiple Air Bud movies or countless direct-to-DVD movies with furry four-legged friends as the central characters, even the unusually violent finale for this PG-movie adds next-to-nothing that audiences haven’t seen in the genre before.
It’s a mystery why this even got a theatrical release — even though it surely cost Warner Bros. next-to-nothing to produce and market, let alone it’ll make its profits not long after it disappears following opening weekend box-office. Nothing about its presentation or style is indicative of a big-screen adventure. Even having Church and Graham on board doesn’t add to its prestige. Plus, everything about Max lacks enthusiasm or care. With little attention given to make this anything more than a by-the-numbers family picture seen multiple times already.
Add in the in-affectionate lead performance from Wiggins, and it’s hard to even care about how much they saturate their war-based tale. To Thomas Haden Church’s credit, he gets one fine moment with our lead, but he mostly looks bored throughout. Whenever he’s meant to look disgruntled, infuriated or saddened, his eyes reflect a mind counting the days until he can shave off his terrible mustache. And then poor Graham has little more to do than be the caring and considerate woman between the meat-headed men around her. The dog training is fine, but nothing exceptional or unique, and the only performer who really makes an impression is Xitlali.
In fact, it’s a shame Carmen didn’t become our lead. She’s confident beyond her years, skilled enough to make Yakin and co-writer Sheldon Lettich‘s hacky dialogue feel somewhat authentic and constantly balances her flat character with enough careful consideration to make the mildest of impacts. She’s a bit of a natural, in short, and if anything Max is a nice introduction for what may be a nice talent to come. So long as she doesn’t get forced into more stuff like this.
And that’s about as natural as this cheesy, carelessly ho-hum family picture gets. There’s rarely any charm or lightheartedness to please, and not enough attention to character growth to drive any interest. And, again, even by the time its shoddily handled, action-centric ending, it’s hard to muster up enough enthusiasm to become truly baffled by how callous it becomes. It’s mostly well intentioned — primarily to a fault — and yet entirely predictable when it’s not being uncomfortably puzzling, and that’s all there really is to say. I tried to think of my best dog pun for this, but I’ll stick with the classic: this one is best left for the dogs.