By Barbara Vandenburgh | Gannett News Service
There’s little pleasure in criticizing a movie about the uncriticizable. The Max of the title is a gorgeous, intelligent Belgian Malinois, one of 3,000-plus dogs that served in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re told at the start. The film that follows is a love letter to the troops and their sacrifice; when Max’s soldier, who had raised and trained him from puppyhood, is killed on the front lines, the dog’s ensuing anguish is as moving as any human’s.
“Max” knows you want to love it, want to root for good people doing good things in service of family and country with their doggy sidekick. And because “Max” knows that, it also knows it doesn’t have to try. It’s the Walmart of feel-good family films: accessible, cheaply made, useful in a pinch and full of American flags.
After losing their eldest son in the war, the Wincott family is devastated to learn that his shell-shocked soldier dog has been abandoned in a shelter as a lost cause. The Wincotts adopt the dog, because “family takes care of its own” — and because they’re reluctant to lose a living link to their dead child.
Ray (Thomas Haden Church) is taking his son’s loss particularly hard, and he takes that pain out on his youngest son, Justin (Josh Wiggins), a mildly troubled teen with an attitude problem — justifiably, as he lives in the shadow of his dead hero brother and in the contempt of a father who misses his favorite son.
The responsibility of caring for Max and luring the four-legged vet out of his PTSD falls on Justin. Despite initially rebuffing the chore, Justin quickly forms a bond of trust with Max. Enough so that when the dog takes a quick disliking to Luke (Tyler Harne), a soldier buddy of Justin’s dead brother who was there when tragedy struck, he investigates.
Does the dog know something nobody else knows? Of course he does.
At no point does “Max” deviate from the boilerplate script of family-friendly, flag-waving, espousing the laziest possible heartland views of patriotism: Texas, guns, country music, flag worship and T-shirts that read “ ’Murica.” There’s nothing wrong with those things (save for the “ ’Murica” shirt, because that’s just wrong).
But when those details are bundled together with overly familiar plot points, cartoon villains, halfhearted camera work, an overbearing score and an insulting lack of attention to detail (like a cellphone that works just fine after being plunged into a river because it’s convenient to the plot), it paints a portrait of a creative team that tried just hard enough and no harder.
Which all told is a pretty lousy salute to those who sacrificed their all.
Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Boaz Yakin and written by Yakin and Sheldon Lettich. Running time: 111 minutes. Rated PG (for action violence, peril, brief language and some thematic elements). Opens Friday at local theaters.