The Max of the title is a military dog, trained to sniff out weapons and explosives, who is serving in Afghanistan with his handler Kyle (Amell). Although he looks to my untrained eye like an Alsatian, he is actually a Belgian Malinois (information for dog lovers here). When Kyle is killed in an ambush, Max falls victim to PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), rendering him incapable of further service and he is about to be put down. But Kyle’s family are offered the chance to adopt the dog, a strong bond develops between Max and Kyle’s stroppy teenage brother Justin (Wiggins) and when Max is threatened by the lies of Kyle’s former army buddy Tyler (Kleintank), who is a gun runner, Max gets his mojo back and he and Justin fight together to bring the villains to justice.
One of the objectives of the film is to honour the war dogs and their handlers who have given their lives in the service of their country and the early scenes of the film showing Kyle and Max in action and a later video showing us more of their close relationship are the most absorbing, whereas the family conflicts between Justin and his parents (Haden Church and Graham) and the “boy and dog defeat villains” side of the story is somewhat formulaic.
What saves the film from cliché though is the performance by its canine star, a beautiful animal with very expressive eyes, who has been brilliantly trained and knocks Lassie into a cocked hat in the acting department. Dog lovers in particular will love this movie. The scene of Kyle’s funeral, where Max cannot be dragged away from his master’s coffin, is particularly touching. The canine performance is never sentimentalized. His behaviour is always that of an animal, albeit a highly intelligent one, and never an ersatz human.
There is also really good work from Wiggins, who has a touch of the young Leonardo DiCaprio about him, while another new young actor to watch is Mia Xitali as his dog loving Hispanic girlfriend, who teaches him how to relate to Max.
On the action side, sequences involving Justin and his mates racing through the woods on their mountain bikes are exciting and really well filmed. You may be surprised to find that Texas, where the story is set, has such a rural aspect – the film was actually shot in North Carolina.
As a tribute to the real life war dogs and their handlers, it would have been more satisfying to have seen Max in a film just about the relationship between dog and man in the war zone. But that would be a totally different movie.
Review by Carol Allen