Director: Boaz Yakin
Stars: Josh Wiggins, Thomas Haden Church
2 (out of 5) Globes
Even before its credits, “Max” offers a title card explaining that dogs have played a part in war for at least a century. It’s as if the filmmakers are assuring us that, no, really, a movie about a marine dog is totally legit, and Hollywood isn’t scraping the bottom of the barrel to find something patriotic to peddle to the red state masses. Not that Hollywood makes many films about soldiers anyway, but the sheer weirdness of “Max” makes it far easier to deal with than blandly jingoistic fare like “Act of Valor.” If the movies must occasionally turn god-fearing and flag-waving, may more of them feature a Belgian Malinois busting an arms ring.
That is indeed the plot of “Max,” which starts with the mutt sniffing out terrorists in Kandahar before relocating to Texas (of course). Max is not just a marine dog but a marine dog with PTSD. The kindly, unbearably noble soldier who trained him dies in the opening minutes, leaving him a barking mess. His keeper’s family — notably his sarcastic (read: in need of reforming) younger brother Justin (Josh Wiggins) — winds up assuming care, forced to train him to be chill again, as if this were a family version of Samuel Fuller’s “White Dog.” But the lessons go both ways. Justin's a troubled kid, which in this film means he sells illegal copies of video games. Can Max nudge him into giving up the criminal (or criminal-ish) life, and maybe also get him to stop wearing jokey "Murica" tees?
Despite this set-up, “Max” is less a canine “American Sniper” than an ’80s boys adventure film, and even sometimes the BMX movie “Rad.” Like that era’s comedies, it features a dopey crime subplot, this one involving a former marine-turned-bad (Luke Kleintank) who’s trying to sell stolen weapons to a Mexican cartel. Justin unwittingly, and eventually stupidly, gets involved in that, as does his dad (Thomas Haden Church), who at one point goes to bust them by himself, unarmed, at night, in a remote part of town. Later it has three teenagers crash a meet-up between dangerous baddies with guns, armed only with bikes, a scary dog and no apparent plan.
It’s at times like these that “Max” is most clearly the product of its maker, Boaz Yakin, who has truly one of Hollywood’s weirdest careers. Yakin broke into the biz writing dopey blockbuster scripts, chiefly the gonzo “The Rookie” — not the baseball weepie, but the one where Charlie Sheen burns down a bar for no reason and Sonia Braga rapes Clint Eastwood. He used his winnings to make the fantastic inner city drama “Fresh.” Instead of keeping going, he found himself sucked back to the stupid, including the self-parodic “Remember the Titans” and the script for the surreally nonsensical “Now You See Me.”
In this career a marine dog movie makes a perverse sense, and at its best “Max” commits wholeheartedly to its bizarre vision, where a dog helps bust the bad guys and even proves instrumental in getting Justin hooked up with a corny girl (Mia Xitlali), who sees his Pink Floyd shirt and remarks, “You’re one of the deep ones, huh?” She’s Mexican, and there’s some light “Titans”-y lessons in which Justin’s parents let slip their casual racism. But that angle is abandoned as soon as it’s introduced and especially since the arms business is ramping up. Soon “Max” finds a drunken balance between patriotic drama for the fam and hard-PG thriller, complete with a villain who seems to have no problem shooting a boy.
The world highlighted by “Max” can seem, to the Coastal moviegoer, as alien as any actual alien species, but it’s alien to the filmmakers too, who are only able to depict it in broad stereotypes. Sometimes things get lost in translation. A July 4 parade gets a marching band doing up “Tubthumping” — a British ode to barhopping from Marxist band Chumbawumba. (Far more egregious is a powerfully vanilla cover of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That.”) The most tragic part is wasting Lauren Graham as the mom, who cries when she overcooks roast beef and seems to always be doing dishes.
Like “American Sniper,” “Max” is technically apolitical, though it features valid criticism of how pols exploit soldiers for personal gain. It just puts these charges in the mouths of the bad guy and the pre-flip-flopped Justin, thus ensuring that peace, such as it were, is restored. It’s a cynical film, after Middle America bucks at any cost, but its own insincerity — and its willingness to, again, be a movie about a marine dog with PTSD helping to conquer gun-wielding baddies — is also its saving grace.