Max. Directed and co-written by Boaz Yakin. Starring Josh Wiggins, Lauren Graham, Thomas Haden Church and Jay Hernandez. Rating: 6 (out of 10)
Just when it seems that kids are jaded beyond reckoning, when young people pray to the God of Wi-Fi and seemingly have no stronger relationship than the ones they share with their 830 Instagram followers, a movie is released reaffirming the fact that there is nothing quite as strong as the bond between a boy and his dog.
Silent film star Rin Tin Tin started the legacy of cinematic canine ideal, while Old Yeller is film's most effective and most-parodied tear-jerker. Lassie is such an enduring icon that she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, right between Ronald Reagan and Robert Young. And, here north of the border, the unflappable Littlest Hobo (introduced each episode by the world's catchiest theme song) shunned the comforts of home to rescue folks in need.
There is plenty of suffering in Max. Surly teen Justin Wincott (Josh Wiggins) is suffering from an inferiority complex: elder brother Kyle (Rob Amell) is a decorated Marine and one heck of a nice guy, mom and dad's favourite.
But when Kyle is killed in action - a non-spoiler from the film's trailer - the family inherits his precision-trained military dog Max. It's a flip of the family dog welcoming the wounded warrior home: in this film it's Max who comes home, suffering from PTSD, and who must be rehabilitated into society. Max is confused and aggressive upon his return, deeply disturbed by what happened in Afghanistan, but Justin commits to getting him back on his four legs. It's a small but significant step for a teen with troubles all his own. Unable to live up to his brother's reputation and the expectations of his father (Thomas Haden Church), Justin has so far spent the summer ducking chores and selling bootleg video games.
At first Justin resents the dog. But new friend Carmen (Mia Xitlali) has a way with dogs and takes an interest in Max; Justin takes an interest in Mia, which adds extra motivation to get the dog back on his feet.
Progress is slow but definite. "We've got the Air Jordan of dogs here!" one kid wonders at Max's athleticism. All that grinds to a halt with the arrival of Tyler Harne (Luke Kleintank) Kyle's friend and fellow Marine. Max reverts to his old ways with Tyler's reappearance, as does Justin: the way Tyler bonds with dad just reaffirms to Justin that he'll never be good enough.
"Dogs are pretty good judges of character," is Carmen's solemn understatement, and here's where things switch to Scooby-Doo mode: Tyler is up to no good and the teens make it their mission to sniff out the bad guys and save the day.
It seems a little cheap to use the war in Afghanistan as a manipulative device rather than a central plot point (what with 2,344 U.S. deaths as of the beginning of this month, plus 158 Canadian casualties) and we can't help but think of the way Danny the German Shepherd stood whining at RCMP Const. Dave Ross' casket this time last year.
But Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans) who co-wrote the film in addition to directing, has attempted to craft an old-style family film aided by the same producers of that other doggy sobfest, Marley and Me. Yakin may let Max may meander a little, thematically, but any filmmaker who takes the time to craft a family film (only a smattering of language and "peril") wedgied in the same week as an R-rated movie about a degenerate stuffed bear is OK in my book.