One thing I figured I could count on: that Max would make me cry. After all, I’m a sucker for a dog movie. Marley and Me, which wasn’t even particularly good, had me bawling like a baby. Old Yeller? Put me in an actual fetal position. So a movie about a bomb-sniffing military dog who, after his handler Kyle (Robbie Amell) dies, is sent to live with Kyle’s angry teenage brother? Pass me a vat of hankies, please.
Except Max is so inept, it didn’t even make me sniffle once. Yes, the scene where Max wails at Kyle’s funeral, and then curls up forlornly beside the casket might’ve moved me, except I’d seen a viral video depicting the exact same thing. From there, the film kind of bungles all the emotional high notes we expect in this sort of film. There’s no moment, say, where teenage Justin (Josh Wiggins) takes out his anger over Kyle’s death on poor Max and later, in a teary-eyed display, finally realizes how much he loves the loyal canine. Instead, the relationship between Justin and Max kind of grows gradually. Max immediately takes a liking to Justin, so the boy is put in charge of caring for it, which he does, dutifully, if unenthusiastically. Eventually, he teaches Max to walk beside him off leash. Later, he goes mountain biking through the woods and Max keeps up, which earns Justin’s respect. The pretty new girl (Mia Xitlali) is (conveniently) an amateur dog trainer, so Max proves useful in wooing her. And that’s kind of it. You might say, kudos to the film for showing restraint, but films like this were built for corny emotional flourishes. Without them, what’s the point?
The rest of Max is just…bizarre. Thomas Haden Church plays Justin’s aloof dad, a military man who was injured in Gulf I, and favored his older son. Lauren Graham plays the concerned mother, who does little more than sniffle with dignity over Kyle’s death and gaze upon her surviving son and husband adoringly. Then there’s Luke (Tyler Harne), who was good friends with Kyle in Afghanistan but actually is kind of a shady guy, who stole weapons from the Taliban and is now trying to sell them in the States. And this is where things really go off the rails. Justin has a business on the side where he burns video games and sells them to his friend’s cousin Emilio (Joseph Julian Soria), a low-level criminal. Turns out, Luke is also selling his weapons to Emilio, which Justin discovers when he follows them into the woods, for absolutely no good reason, thus putting himself, Max, his friends, and his entire family in jeopardy. How a sweet story about a boy and his dog turns into a lame thriller about backwoods weapons dealing is anyone’s guess. Yes, of course, Max saves the day and we get our happy ending. But I assure you, there wasn’t a wet eye in the house.