Boaz Yakin: Max (2015)


A boy and a dog

The emotional heart of the boy and dog adventure movie, Max, comes in an early scene featuring the boy, 14-year-old Justin Wincott (Josh Wiggins). It shows how much he resents the way he is overshadowed by his older brother Kyle (Robbie Amell), a Marine in Afghanistan -- and the militarism of his dad (Thomas Haden Church) -- and the religiosity of his mom (Lauren Graham). His snarky grins and bad attitude are augmented by doing bad things, particularly selling expensive bootlegged video games around their South Carolina town. We get a chance to see the older brother, Kyle in action. He's the handler for Max, a Belgian Malinois military dog used as a forward scout for Kyle's Marine unit, who can find weapons caches, sense if the area the unit is going into will be safe, seemingly do most anything. The Belgian Malinois is the best actor in the movie. But that's okay, really: he's the one we came to see. We identify with Justin to share his experience with Max. This is a conventional, boilerplate movie, but it does the job of providing vicarious flashbacks to boys' adventures with dogs.

Then Kyle is killed in action in mysterious circumstances and Max is brought back and due to canine PTSD is unmanageable and about to be put down. The Wincotts plead be allowed to adopt Max to save him because he is a part of Kyle. Through this situation Justin makes peace with his lost brother and becomes a mensch in his own and his dad's eyes and wins a girlfriend, Carmen (Mia Xitlali), the feisty, newly arrived cousin of his best friend Chuy (Dejon LaQuake). Chuy adds a self-consciously ethnic note, being amusingly Hispanic ghetto; Carmen is a mini female Cesar Milan (the "dog whisperer"), who helps Justin ease into making friends with the traumatized Max and becoming his friend and handler.

Then along comes Tyler (Luke Kleintank), who was with Kyle in Afghanistan. He says he was injured in the firefight that killed Kyle. But Max can spot bad guys and Max doesn't like Tyler. So the movie veers into crime action that feels extreme for a family movie. There were always bad guys in afternoon movies like this. But weapons trafficking seems much to bear, and a little too dangerous for a middle-aged ex-Marine dad with a damaged leg, a teenage boy, and a dog with PTSD. Nonetheless, it's hard to bear Max any ill will. Let's hope this is a feather in the cap of Josh Wiggins. Josh is a young actor with good looks and talent to burn. Josh debuted as the star of the exciting and intense, if not quite resolved, Hellion, with Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis. He reminds me of another Texas boy, Tye Sheridan. Tye's first films arguably had exceptional artistic clout (Tree of Life, Mud, Joe), but Josh looks very promising nonetheless.

And let's hope that the popularizing of Belgian Malinois that will happen from Max does not lead to their being abandoned and euthanized or the breed being damaged as has happened with Dalmatians, Great Danes and Saint Bernards from movies that featured them. The Belgian Malinois look at first a bit like German Shepherds, but they have shorter hair and are even quicker and smarter and more adaptable and also incredibly spirited and energetic. They are used for drug detection, personal protection, police work, Navy Seal dogs, and the like. A dog expert warns that you should only have one "if you live to train your dogs," and says they require four to five hours of intense activity and training a day to be happy. I know what this means because I had a young Irish Setter when I was in my twenties. We spent a lot of time running around.

For a detailed summary of the movie see here.

Max, 111 mins., opened 26 June 2015 in the US; 7 August in the UK.