Who needs humans when you have a dog like Max? This what I suspected would be my thought after I watched this film and that is exactly what I concluded after.
The film is named for the dog, a Belgian Malinois, who was trained to help US Marines in war. Max’s handler is young American Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell) whose family back home is equal parts proud and worried about their son as he makes his way through hostile territories. Their worst fears come true when Kyle is killed in the field. In the single most crushing scene in the film, his funeral is disrupted by a distraught Max, who fights free of his leash to go to his master, now lying dead in the coffin. Sounds like a tearjerker? You have no idea. It’s a gut-punch in the trailer and in the movie, even though you already know it’s coming from having seen the trailer.
Max is so distraught that he’s out of control and potentially dangerous but when the Navy tells the Wincott family that he will have to be put down, they decide against it. There is one person that Max seems to quiet down around – Kyle’s bratty younger brother Justin (Josh Wiggins). This is reason enough for the family to take care of the dog that was loved by their late son. Max goes home with the family and so begins the challenge of how to deal with him. Justin has assistance from the new kid in town, a pretty girl called Carmen (Mia Xitlali) who has prior experience with training dogs, and just kicking butt in general.
At this point, the film could turn into a sweet little family film. In fact, it often feels like a film meant for kids. However, there’s a real streak of danger that runs through it that the filmmakers are not shy about exploring. We soon venture into the territory of corruption, betrayal, manipulation and some pretty badass fighting among big beast dogs.
Why would you watch Max? Because – Max. He’s shattered and helpless but he’s also so fierce and good at what he does. It’s impossible to not feel for this creature in ways that we have forgotten to feel for characters on screen. The kids do a good job as do the parents played by Thomas Haden Church and Lauren Graham. Luke Kleintank as the best friend of the dead son is kind of like Dan Stevens in The Guest – less psychopathic but equally evil and he plays it without a false note. Also, you have to stay for the end credits – a photo montage of war dogs over the years. Fascinating.
You kind of know that Max will save the day eventually but the villains bring real believable danger and high stakes which makes the narrative an interesting ride. Is it a little one-the-nose sometimes? Maybe.
That dog, though.