Blu-ray Review: “Max” Is Good Family Entertainment

Review by James Land

A dog that helped US Marines in Afghanistan returns to the U.S. and is adopted by his handler’s family after suffering a traumatic experience.

“Max” is a war dog, whose job is to sniff out explosives and other weapons so his handler’s platoon stays safe. Max’s handler, Kyle (Robbie Arnell), fights as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. His family back home in Lufkin, Texas consists of burdened war hero dad Ray (Thomas Hayden Church), mom Pamela (Lauren Graham), and little brother Justin (Josh Wiggins). Justin has no interest in war and lets his bitterness over his brother’s enlistment infects every other relationship he has. He’s sullen and immersed in video games at home, refusing to talk to Kyle when he calls. His activities include illegally jail-breaking and bootlegging video games he sells to his friend’s cousin, a shady guy named Emelio (iJoseph Julian Soria). When Kyle is killed in action, Max develops post traumatic stress disorder. Since Max won’t follow anyone else’s orders and has become dangerous to handle, the Marine Core has no choice but to put him down. Kyle’s family won’t let that happen, though. Max has responded positively to Justin, so they go to the training center and take Max home.

Little known actor Wiggins broods with the best of them. He gives Justin just enough sympathy early on to keep audiences from wanting to strangle him. Much of his screen time centers on his relationship with Max, but he doesn’t have to bear the burden alone. He’s joined by his best friend, Chuy (Dejon LeQuake), who provides comic relief and some of the most uneven moments in the film, and Chuy’s cousin Carmen (Mia Xitlali). Carmen becomes central in Justin’s life, both as a teen love interest and a wise friend who helps Justin connect deeply with Max. The three teens work well together, especially Wiggins and Xitlali who play off each other’s cues seamlessly, making their scenes together authentic. It’s a good bet you’ll be seeing these three newcomers a lot in the next few years.

While the adults are secondary, they still play important roles in showing the complex adult world Max comes from and Justin will enter into. Church’s Ray wears his burdens heavily, limping through the film with his shoulders slumped, except when he’s working with his hands or marching in the Fourth of July Parade. Justin’s relationship with his father mirrors his relationship with Max. It’s a tentative and dangerous mix of mistrust and need. Ray needs Justin to accept him as much as Justin needs his approval. Years of teen angst compounded by angry words have separated the two of them. Pamela serves as a referee between the two of them, a role she eventually tires of. Graham gives an able performance that is mitigated by her uneven Texas accent. Much like Carmen, Pamela delivers some of the film’s most poignant and wise words.

TV veteran Luke Kleintank serves as, Tyler, the friend who’s not what he seems. Kyle’s early interactions with Tyler, not to mention the fact that Max seems to hate him, foreshadow the dangers to come later in the film. His dealings with a local Sherriff’s Deputy and Emelio take an awful turn that forces Max, Justin and his friends to play the hero.

War dogs have a rich tradition as part of armies around the world. The US military uses dogs like Max much like local police departments use dogs to sniff a wide range of illegal materials, to search and rescue victims in disasters and to chase bad guys. “Max” reinforces the important role dogs play in the lives of so many Americans. Sometimes they are heroes, sometimes they are just friends, but many of us couldn’t live without them.

Available in stores on October 27.

James McDonald
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