Movie review: ‘Max’ is a ‘ruff’ film to watch
There’s a promising premise taking shape at the beginning of “Max,” one that gives us a “war is hell” setup involving a Marine who comes home from combat duty in Afghanistan, suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and tries, with help, to adjust to a life of normalcy.
You’ve seen the posters. You know that it’s a four-legged Marine named Max, who’s an MWD (Military Working Dog) – a highly trained dog who walks ahead of Marines on patrol, sniffing out guns and members of the Taliban who are waiting in ambush. Things go very wrong in the opening minutes, resulting in the death of Kyle (Robbie Arnell), the Marine who’s Max’s trainer and best friend. The understandably distraught and confused Max is sent back to the States for re-grooving or, if that doesn’t work, well, the military would rather not say what happens behind closed doors to military dogs that haven’t worked out as planned.
What improbably happens to Max is he ends up in Texas, living with Kyle’s family – Dad (Thomas Haden Church), a former Marine who’s physically damaged; Mom (Lauren Graham), who smiles a lot; and Kyle’s teenage brother Justin (Josh Wiggins), who matches every one of Mom’s smiles with a scowl. Nobody in the family wants the dog, but after Max goes nuts over the casket at Kyle’s funeral (the film’s first major red flag is this dog-at-funeral business), and later apparently picks up the scent of Kyle in young Justin (no, I didn’t buy that, either), the military offers two options: Kill the dog or send him home with these folks, where he might calm down.
But chained in the back yard and howling through the night, to the disdain of Dad, Mom, and Justin (and just think about their neighbors), the dog only gets worse. Until … and you knew there was going to be an until … Justin is hanging out with his pal Chuy (Dejon LaQuake), and he meets Chuy’s feisty cousin Carmen (Mia Xitlali), who conveniently knows everything there is to know about training difficult dogs.
OK, let the over-plotting begin, or continue. In no particular order, we get stories about: stolen video games, crooked cops, Mexican gangs, illegal arms sales in Afghanistan and Texas, kidnapping, evil Rottweilers, and heavy drinking.
There’s far too much going on, and too much of it is bad drama, with only two performances worthy of any praise: the one by Church, whose character is multi-layered and whose layers are slowly revealed, and the one by Xitlali, who’s bristling with energy and an inner excitement. Everyone else is kind of flat, either because their characters are underdeveloped (Graham) or because they’re just not very good actors (Wiggins and LaQuake). There’s some hope with the introduction of a bad guy, a mysteriously discharged Marine named Tyler (Luke Kleintank), whose behavior in Afghanistan seems merely fishy near the beginning, but he merely devolves into a black & white cardboard villain by the climax.
Add to these shortcomings some misplaced, really intrusive pop music on the soundtrack; a misguided, irresponsible presentation of how to train a dog, especially a dog that’s gone through emotional trauma; and a series of poorly staged, unconvincing dog fights that make it look as if the participants are having playdates, not going for each other’s throats. For a movie with a promising premise, this misfires at almost every juncture.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written by Boaz Yakin and Sheldon Lettich; directed by Boaz Yakin
With Thomas Haden Church, Josh Wiggins, Lauren Graham, Mia Xitlali, Dejon LaQuake