Say what you will about the recent crop of movies that have aimed to venerate the men and women serving in the armed forces. Accusations of jingoistic propaganda are never far when trying to positively portray one side of unpopular wars. Max, the new film Boaz Yakin, aims to provide a twist on the war narrative by bringing attention to the dogs and their handlers that fight over seas. However, the film only briefly stumbles in Afghanistan before bringing the heroic dog stateside in a story that hits the trifecta of emotional manipulation – a death in the family, a dog, and the selfless sacrifice of those in uniform. All that saccharine sentimentality and heavy-handed patriotism gives ways to an all-too-familiar plot before reaching its conclusion and the comfy confines of exploitative cinema.
The film opens in Afghanistan where Max and his handler Kyle (Robbie Amell) are leading a group of Marines to find hidden weapons. After finding a large weapons cache, Kyle takes the time to call back home to Texas. He Skypes with his father Ray (Thomas Hayden Church), his mother Pamela (Lauren Graham), and his apathetic brother Justin (Josh Wiggins). But Kyle is called into the offices of his superiors when discrepancies are noticed in his troop’s report on the weapons they seized. Before Kyle can confront his best friend Tyler (Luke Kleintank) about the reporting error, their troop is attacked. When the dust settles, Kyle is found to have been killed. At Kyle’s funeral, Max is unruly and grief-stricken. Suffering from PTSD, Max is unable to return to the field. To prevent the dog from being euthanized, the family adopts Max despite his unruly behavior. With the help of his friend Chuy (Dejon LaQuake) and his cousin Carmen (Mia Xitlali), Justin begins to earn the trust of Max even as his father is wary about the war-torn animal.
Max might’ve worked had it been more earnest in its ambition. The first half of the film teases a story that is about a family dealing with loss and grappling with the effects of PTSD, even if it is just an animal. But the script, co-written by Yakin and Sheldon Lettich, deems that story wouldn’t be as effective as having a teenager and his hero dog breaking up an illegal gun ring.
The weirdest thing about Max is the sheer amount of characters that want to kill this dog. The opening scenes in Afghanistan show the Afghani fighters trying to kill the dog. Upon his return to the states, the threat of euthanasia is always present and from multiple sources. Hell, even the dad stares down the dog with a loaded pistol; this only happens after the dad believes a tall tale about how the dog is responsible for his son’s death. I understand the need for tension in a story, but the Sword of Damocles is constantly hanging over this poor mutt’s head. It’s the biggest element of the film’s emotional manipulation, hoping to play upon our natural empathy for big-eyed dogs.
I find Max to be a piece of exploitation because it isn’t about what it purports to be about. It attempts to use the military and our connection with our pets as reasons to care for the characters without having ever giving us a reason to care. Worst of all, the film ends with a generic country song playing over historical pictures of dogs in war. Perhaps if the movie were actually about these things it wouldn’t feel so crass and exploitative. But Max isn’t anything special. The film is nothing more than a Free Willy rip-off, complete with the heroic jump. Combined with the bizarre scenes of dog fighting, possibly directed by Michael Vick (seriously, it’s weird), Max is a bizarre kid’s film that is made for, well, I’m not really sure. I’d like to see an honest exploration of the canine members of the military, but Max isn’t it.