America simply adores animal heroes. They are the crème de la crème of traditional “boy and his dog” stories. This is probably why so many animal videos are currently clogging up your Facebook and Twitter feeds. But there’s one such story you haven’t heard yet; it’s director Boaz Yakin’s fictional tale (tail?) of MAX, the titular Belgian Malinois war dog who not only served his country in Afghanistan, but also helped an at-risk teen get back on track. Are those tears welling in your eyes yet?! In this summer’s second film from Warner Brothers with a protagonist named Max (call this MAD MAX: FURRY ROAD, as my hubby does), this four-legged feature proves that heroes come in all shapes and sizes – so long as they have a big heart. This feel-good flick is harrowing and heartfelt.
Though this film isn’t based on any true story in particular, Max represents the thousands of canines who’ve served our country overseas. When we first meet our titular hero, he’s with his handler Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell), sniffing out a large weapons cache in a tiny Afghani village. We are instantly alerted to the intensity Max and his handler face as the camera prowls alongside Max. Danger could be lurking around every corner. Sadly, that brutal reality hits us far too soon when his unit is ambushed by a group of insurgents in an attack that claims Kyle’s life and renders his companion with a nasty case of PTSD. Back in Texas, Kyle’s younger brother Justin (Josh Wiggins) is also getting himself mixed up in a heap of trouble. He’s pirating videogames for local gangster Emilio (Joseph Julian Sorie), and talking back to his grief-stricken mom (Lauren Graham) and stoic blue-collar father (Thomas Hayden Church). Luckily for both of the broken souls at the heart of this narrative, relief is in sight. Enter Carmen (Mia Xitali, a true revelation who upstages almost everyone in this feature), Justin’s bestie’s feisty and fearless cousin who helps “man” and his best friend better understand each other. Let the healing – and the raining on your face – begin.
Yakin serves up a heap of emotional moments that will have audiences shedding tears (as I did). It’s a great way for parents to open the discussion about wartime realities with children, as unfortunately many families have had to deal with such a thing in this modern era. From the shot of forcibly subdued Max crying over Kyle’s lifeless body, to Kyle’s funeral where the desperate doggie claws at the carpet to reach the casket, to the heartswells when Justin climbs into Max’s cage to comfort him during fireworks, it all goes straight for the jugular. Maybe it’s years of Gilmore Girls/ Parenthood pre-conditioning, but Graham’s performance is a glorious gut-punch for adults in the audience. When she cries, you cry. When she’s tough-as-nails, you too steel yourself in your seat.
Nevertheless, the feature isn’t totally flawless. I would like to have seen Sheldon Lettich’s screenplay beef up the relationship between Justin and Kyle a bit more, as we never really see Justin impacted by Kyle’s death. A large share of the film’s conflict takes shape late in the second act, and plays out in a semi-clunky manner – I heard the youngster behind me yawn twice. The handling of Chuy (Dejon LaQuake) is a tad problematic – he’s too much of an annoying presence to be relied on as the film’s comedic relief. The racial tension he feels from Justin’s family keeps getting brought up, but never dealt with in a satisfactory way. Maybe an innocuous line Carmen uttered, solved racism. Composer Trevor Rabin’s score is omnipresent, bordering on obtrusive. Still, although it’s manipulative, I can’t say it didn’t work on me. Let’s just say it pushed my feelings along.
Other highlights include teaching concepts like personal responsibility, patriotism, dog ownership, and grief. They’re dealt with in a non-condescending, compassionate manner, and without a hint of “eat your vegetables.” There’s also a fascinating throwback vibe reminiscent of Warner Brothers’ family adventure dramas of the 90’s that begun with FREE WILLY– only now with deeper, more resonant meaning. Though action in the third act might be a little too intense for sensitive younger viewers (what with the threat of violence and a few bloodless/ gore-free scenes that feature Max and two mean Rottweilers fighting), overall the feature is appropriate for animal lovers of all ages.
3.5 out of 5
MAX opens on June 26 and is rated PG.